Nearly five hours of unprecedented talks between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, culminated in the signing of a historic document at yesterday’s nuclear summit in Singapore.
While for his part Mr Trump committed to providing “security guarantees,” Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.”
Amidst the backslapping, bonhomie and fulsome declarations of a new friendship there were lofty declarations too with Mr Trump promising to handle a “very dangerous problem” and Kim forecasting “major change for the world.”
On the face of it this all sounds very good and in itself is indeed to be welcomed.
It would be churlish to suggest that in the first handshake between these two men there is not some cause for hope and progress, in what up until now has been a dangerously volatile face off between President Trump and Chairman Kim.
But drill down into the joint agreement and statements by the two leaders and what becomes clear is that this historic deal remains light on specifics. It’s not so much that the devil lies in the detail, but more that there is very little detail to begin with on how the agreement between them will actually be implemented.
In short, it’s a deal heavy on pledges and vague – to say the least – on practicalities.
To begin with, the document signed by both leaders made no mention of the sanctions currently imposed on Kim’s regime. There was no reference either in the agreement to take steps in moving toward finally signing a peace treaty between the two countries.
North Korea and the United States were on opposite sides in the 1950-53 Korean War and are technically still combatants, given that the conflict was concluded only with a truce.
Did Mr Trump not boast before heading to Singapore of being able to achieve such a peace treaty?
On a more positive note on this issue at least, the joint statement did confirm the two sides had agreed to recover the remains of prisoners of war and those missing in action so that they could be repatriated.
Ultimately though it remains the issue of denuclearisation on which the success or failure of the summit will be judged.
Beyond open-ended pledges from Kim, what Mr Trump came away with was a far cry from the previous US aim of “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. This after all was Washington’s original demand, required to uphold the validity of the Nuclear-non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
In fact Kim’s commitments on this in Singapore appear not to have gone beyond what he already pledged to do in April when he met South Korean President Moon Jae-in along their respective countries’ border.
That said few analysts expected Kim to commit to CVID following this first negotiation. Whether nuclear disarmament is indeed the outcome of yesterday’s summit won’t be known for years, if not decades.
Ultimately the test is now on the Trump administration to see if they have the political will to sustain this process and move the negotiation past broad commitments to durable and sustainable solutions.
A spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae-in aptly summed this up yesterday when he was quoted as saying that the “exact meaning and intention” of what Mr Trump had said “needs to be assessed”.
It has always been thus with the Trump presidency’s promises and pledges on major foreign policy issues.
Certainly the man who regards himself as the ‘master deal maker’ and relies on “my touch, my feel” when it comes to crucial negotiations, appears in the wake of the summit to have made some pretty major concessions.
Chief among these is halting what he called “provocative” war games that are the extensive US military exercises in South Korea, something widely seen by regional analysts as a substantial concession to Pyongyang.
But for Washington any deal brokered with Kim can’t end with simply stopping his regime’s bad behaviour. It needs to also encourage the kind of actions that can reconcile North Korea with the rest of the world and let it start to undertake fundamental economic reforms.
Only time will tell the extent to which this kind of thinking underpinned the negotiations of the two leaders as they sat round the table in Singapore.
For many observers and analysts – myself included –the overriding impression that ultimately came out from the summit was of two men intent on making history for their own political ends. Given the stakes it was obvious too that both were equally determined at all costs not to come out looking like the loser.
Writing this week in the US magazine Foreign Policy, respected American strategy expert Dr Van Jackson, Senior Fellow at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington, expressed the thoughts of many sceptics on Trump’s meeting with Kim.
“Any analysis of the summit has to start with the reality of Trump’s individual motivations, rather than falling for the pretence of national interests,” observed Mr Jackson.
“It’s about fuelling his ego and sustaining a mythos about his deal-making prowess that’s not just unsubstantiated – it’s beginning to border on a cult of personality,” Jackson added.
Harsh words indeed, but evidence suggests that over the past few days Mr Trump’s deal-making ‘prowess’ has not only lowered the definition of what success means in terms off his meeting with Kim, but what North Korean denuclearisation itself would actually entail.
Managing the expectations of such an historic summit was never going to be easy whether for Washington or Pyongyang. What occurred in Singapore was without doubt a remarkable change in dynamics from less than a year ago, when Trump was threatening “fire and fury” against Kim, who in turn scorned the American president as a “mentally deranged US dotard.”
But a summit that was billed by Mr Trump as a very ‘big deal’ in the end turned into something more akin to a meet-and-greet, get-to-know-you talk. Then again, it’s a start of sorts, and that perhaps is all that really matters for now.
Source : HeraldScotland