Constructing peace

Constructing peace

In Singapore, defying odds and cynicism, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un take a welcome step together

US President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during the signing of a document after their summit
US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during the signing of a document after their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018. Anthony Wallace/Pool via Reuters

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have little in common except their willingness to take huge political risks. Their readiness to gamble on the first ever summit meeting between the two nations locked in mutual hostility for many decades has been breathtaking. After much confrontational rhetoric through 2017, that raised widespread concerns about a nuclear war in the Korean Peninsula, the two leaders moved rapidly towards unfreezing the conflict. Those looking for a detailed declaration after the talks between Trump and Kim were disappointed; but the short statement they issued has huge potential to reorder the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula. It is built around three mutual commitments.

The first is from Kim, who reaffirmed his “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”. The second is from Trump, who promised to “provide security guarantees” to North Korea. The third was a joint pledge to build a “lasting and robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula”. The key to understanding the declaration lies in the appreciation of the interlocking nature of the three commitments — that progress on one, for example on eliminating nuclear weapons, depends on security guarantees and constructing a peaceful order in the Peninsula. This approach is very different from the traditional American nuclear diplomacy. It viewed the problem as bringing a deviant state to negotiations through punishing sanctions and forcing it to perform unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Trump, who began with the idea of “maximum pressure” has moved to a very different framework built around two ideas — building personal trust and thinking political. On the first, Trump was ready to travel a long way from America to Singapore and sit down with Kim without any preconditions. After the talks, Trump expressed his full confidence that the North Korean leader is a partner he could work with. On the second, Trump was willing to go much further than his predecessors in offering security guarantees to North Korea. Trump explained what was left unsaid in the statement. That he would scale down the routine but aggressive US military exercises in the Peninsula.

Trump also said he would be happy to consider bringing back home 32,000 US troops in South Korea at a future date as part of constructing a peace regime. Trump was willing to address the source of North Korean insecurity that propelled the nuclear weapons programme in the first place. On his part, Kim had a new humanitarian gesture of his own. He agreed to recover the remains of American prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action during the Korean War of 1950-53. A lot of confidence-building of this kind will be needed, when the US and North Korea begin to nail down the details of implementing the deal in the coming weeks and months.