Few diplomatic events in recent years have drawn so much attention as the summit Tuesday in Singapore between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The personalities of the two leaders — the maverick Trump and the mysterious Kim — have lent special colour to the event.
The speed with which the intense condescension and confrontation between the two leaders has turned into bonhomie has been dramatic. Recall the rhetoric late last year when Trump used to taunt Kim by calling him the “Little Rocket Man”. Kim had responded by calling Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard” — or a senile old fool. Their incendiary rhetoric seemed to make a nuclear war imminent on the Korean Peninsula.
While most conventional thinking has dismissed the possibilities for any progress in the Singapore talks, it would be unwise to completely rule out a breakthrough that could change the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula frozen in hostility for decades.
What is the summit about?
Much of the confusion about the summit and its importance comes from a misreading of the agenda. If we go by the international media narrative, Singapore is all about Kim agreeing to surrender his nuclear weapons and missiles on terms laid down by Washington.
But if you think of the summit as a rearrangement of the Korean Peninsula’s international relations, you will begin to make better sense of what’s unfolding. To be sure, denuclearisation of the peninsula is certainly a major part of the story. But it is tied inextricably to finding political accommodation between North Korea and the United States.
The summit is also about bringing peace and reconciliation between the northern and southern parts of the Korean Peninsula. Kim’s outreach to South Korean President Moon Jae-in early in 2018 has been the trigger for the current developments. Two summit meetings between Kim and Moon in April and May have set the stage for the encounter in Singapore.
President Moon won the 2017 presidential election on the platform of reconciliation, and has taken the lead in convincing Kim and Trump to make a fresh start on finding a way out of the Korean impasse. For Kim it is also about ending North Korea’s prolonged international isolation, and modernising the economy. For Trump, this is about resolving a problem that none of his predecessors could. Trump, who has always celebrated his own negotiating skills, has the ambition to leave an enduring international legacy.
Pessimists point out that previous international attempts at resolving the nuclear dispute with North Korea ended in failure. They insist that the Kim family dictatorship can’t be trusted to keep its word. Sceptics argue that Kim’s definition of ‘denuclearisation’ is not the same as that of the United States and the international community.
All these assertions tell only one side of the story. The past negotiations with North Korea failed not just due to the duplicity of the Kims; the US, too, went back on its part of the bargain. Like in any big and prolonged quarrel, there is enough blame to go around.
For the Kims, nuclear weapons are about the survival of the regime. They were a response to the perceived aggressive policies of the US and its allies. They were also a way of insuring against the loss of traditional allies — Russia and China — who were deepening ties with South Korea after the Cold War.
Kim has signalled that he has no need for nuclear weapons if the security of his regime is guaranteed by the United States. Trump has been willing to trust Kim on that, with the caveat that he will walk away the moment he thinks the Korean leader is backtracking.
Kim has demonstrated his good faith by suspending nuclear and missile tests, dismantling weapons test sites, and releasing US prisoners; Trump has put the credibility of the US presidency on line by sitting with Kim.
The likely outcomes
As Trump said before his departure for Singapore, “so far so good”. He also pointed out that the summit was a one-time political opportunity to move the Korean Peninsula away from perennial conflict to peace and prosperity. But given the complexity of issues at hand and the mercurial personalities of the two leaders, there is so much that could go wrong. Failure at the summit could take the Korean Peninsula back to the boiling point.
Trump is no longer seeing the negotiation with Kim as a one-night stand at which all issues can be sorted out. He now sees it as an extended process. That has increased the prospects for a successful summit in Singapore, where success could be defined as the building of some mutual trust between the two leaders, identifying an agreed destination, and preparing a broad roadmap to get there.
The goals are quite clear. Trump needs a commitment from Kim on denuclearisation, and a common understanding on what it means. Kim wants Trump to promise an end to hostile policy, agree to establish normal relations, and lift international sanctions.
The two sides are also said to be discussing a declaration on ending the Korean War that took place during 1950-53, which ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty. If these talks succeed, President Moon of South Korea could join Trump and Kim to sign off on the declaration. A delegation from Moon’s office has arrived in Singapore.
Neither leader can afford a vague set of promises from the other. Trump and Kim will need an understanding on who does what, when and how — the trickiest part of any deal. Some in the White House would want to frontload Kim’s commitments on denuclearisation and backload America’s on lifting sanctions. North Korea has made it quite clear that there should be coordinated and reciprocal action on nukes and normalisation. As they negotiate the delicate manoeuvre, Trump and Kim would be looking over their shoulders for potential domestic backlash. No leader, and certainly not Trump and Kim, would want to be seen as being weak.
Implications for Asia
The prospect of a deal between America and North Korea has already made Korea’s neighbours nervous. China — long seen as being central to the resolution of the Korean crisis — is now anxious about being left out of the party. Even more galling is the prospect that Washington might emerge as a security guarantor to a country that Beijing has long seen as its buffer state. Japan is worried that a partial nuclear deal between Trump and Kim would leave it exposed to North Korea’s residual strategic capabilities. It is already generating concerns about the credibility of the longstanding alliance with the US. Russia, which shares a border with North Korea, has seen its influence in the Korean Peninsula decline in recent years. Moscow is now eager to elbow its way back into the game.
As Trump and Kim move towards a new paradigm in Northeast Asia, India too signalled its intent to adapt by sending Minister of State for External Affairs V K Singh to Pyongyang last month. New Delhi is also preparing to host President Moon in the coming weeks. Whether the Singapore summit succeeds or not, India would want to get more engaged in the Korean Peninsula.