Kim Jong Un was reported to have said that his meeting with Trump was like scenes from a science fiction movie. At times the TV coverage—all those banners—did seem rather like that, but what happens next? I think that at least the medium-term outcome could be much more like the Chinese and Russian prescription of “twin freezes” than the “complete, verifiable, irrevocable” nuclear disarmament of North Korea sought by the United States.
The statement issued after the Trump-Kim summit is brief and in general terms, leaving almost everything to follow-up and the goodwill of the parties. Some of the issues most canvassed before the meeting—-for instance what does “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” mean to each side—were mentioned but not elaborated. The one specific change came in post-summit remarks by Trump, when he said that the US-ROK joint military exercises, “war games”, would be ended. These of course are something that North Korea has long wanted to see stopped, and it seems that the ROK did not know what Trump was going to say. Explanations and rationalisations—some of which Trump may not endorse—are being made by US spokesmen. Kim certainly gained a great deal in terms of respect and status for himself and his country. The Chinese will be pleased, and the actual outcome could well end up as the Chinese and Russian proposal for a mutual freeze—on the North’s nuclear and missile programs and the major US-ROK military exercises—rather than “complete denuclearisation”, which was not referred to in North Korean media accounts of the meeting. (They did, however, speak of sanctions being lifted).
In a piece I wrote before the summit I said that three things to watch for in the outcomes would be “front-loading”, security guarantees and economic inducements. The joint statement says that “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK”; it contains references to “prosperity”, and it is clear, for example from the video that Trump showed Kim, that he held out the prospect of a bright economic future for North Korea, which has reportedly recently re-emphasised economic development as a national goal. And there was “front-loading”, but it was the opposite of what I had had in mind. I had thought that in order to produce agreement Kim would have to agree to undertake some substantial early and visible steps in regard to nuclear disarmament, to prevent criticism that Trump had just been “played” by the North Koreans. But Kim didn’t, although he “committed to work toward” complete denuclearisation of the peninsula. The criticism came, and Trump simply angrily rejected it.
It was Trump, however, in his press conference after the meetings, who delivered the “front-loading”, by volunteering an end to the US-ROK military exercises, which he described as “war games” and terribly expensive. It seems clear that neither US allies nor his own military establishment knew that he was going to say that. Why did he do it? In all the subsequent discussion three explanations seem to stand out: one, he’d never liked the exercises, or indeed any aspect of the stationing of US forces overseas; two, that he seems to have a perverse tendency to disregard allies and look for agreement with opponents—see, for example, his renewed expressions of interest in a summit with Putin; and three, that it’s always good to be the last person to speak to Trump about anything, because he tends to agree with the last opinion he’s heard—and of course the last person he’d spoken to about Korean matters was Kim. It’s worth noting that in his press conference Trump left the impression that he did not rule out the eventual withdrawal of US forces from South Korea, something that would radically change the strategic situation in North Asia, and be greatly welcomed by China and Russia, as well as North Korea.
So that was certainly an unexpected outcome from a meeting which Kim is reported to have described as “like a science-fiction movie”, and at times seemed to have elements of both fantasy fiction and reality TV. Was it a “Kim win”? Well, it certainly wasn’t a Kim loss. That doesn’t mean a win-win outcome is impossible, but some elements of the US position, or at least of some expressions of it, seem to have an air of unreality about them. Two such in particular are the call for complete and verifiable nuclear disarmament with substantial progress by 2020 (Pompeo); and the statement that neither security guarantees nor sanctions relief will come about until there is substantial progress on nuclear disarmament. The problem with the first is the length and complexity of the task; and the problem with the second, at least in regard to sanctions relief, is that it ignores the fact that the summit has greatly aided North Korea’s international acceptance and respectability, and will at the least make it easier for countries inclined to evade or get around sanctions to do so—despite Julie Bishop’s rather “against the mood”remark about “keeping a foot on North Korea’s throat”.
However all these things will be explored in the high-level follow-on negotiations foreshadowed in the summit statement, building on the US-North Korea officials-level talks that have already taken place, and it would be needlessly pessimistic to say that no “major changes”, to quote Kim, will come about. As noted above, one has already. But one must expect further progress to be difficult and much argued over. As also noted above, I won’t be surprised if progress to the ultimate goals is slow, and we live for quite a while with the “freeze for freeze”, while sanctions are gradually eroded and cooperative activities between North and South Korea gradually develop—in effect the “step by step” process and “simultaneous action” advocated by North Korea, China and Russia. Not the ultimate outcome sought by Trump, but a marked contrast with the recent past.
In a way both Kim and Trump succeeded in getting the other’s attention—Kim with his threats of nuclear warheads that could reach the US, and Trump with his ability to mobilise sanctions that really set back the North’s hopes for economic progress. It remains to be seen whether that, with the admittedly rather weird help that the summit offered, can be translated into what the summit statement called for, “good faith efforts to secure lasting achievements towards peace, prosperity, and the security of the Korean Peninsula and the world”.
Geoff Miller is a former Australian diplomat and Ambassador to South Korea. He was Director-General of the Office of National Assessments.