By Titli Basu*
With intensified diplomacy unfolding in the Korean Peninsula since the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February, culminating into a historic summit between American President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12, Chairman Kim has arrived at the international stage as a crafty statesman and a smart negotiator as opposed to the narrative of being a “little rocket man”. The much anticipated Singapore Summit between Trump and Kim has unleashed mixed signals about America’s Korea policy and has deepened fault lines with regional allies over potential redefining of the Northeast Asian security landscape. While this summit is only the first step to what can very well prove to be a long drawn process of achieving denuclearisation in the Korean Peninsula, the first round clearly belonged to Chairman Kim.
Following the “epochal” US-North Korea summit, Chairman Kim left Singapore a happy man with considerable concessions for Pyongyang including no mention of complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation (CVID) in the Joint Statement, no definite timeline for denuclearisation, ensuring regime stability, unilateral suspension of the US-South Korea war games, besides an invitation to the White House. In fact, Washington failed to garner any significant commitment from Pyongyang other than what it had earlier agreed in the Panmunjom Declaration, issued after the inter-Korean summit held on April 27.
While President Trump has been an ardent critic of former President Barack Obama’s policy of strategic patience, has he moved away from his maximum pressure campaign vis-à-vis North Korea? More importantly, the biggest worry for America’s regional allies is whether Trump is tilting away from the “ironclad” security commitment towards the region in favour of his ‘America First’ policy.
While the Joint Statement underscores “complete denuclearisation of Korean Peninsula”, the challenge lies in addressing the differing interpretations of what denuclearisation implies to both parties. The statement failed to categorically define what constitutes denuclearisation. For long, denuclearisation for the US and its allies meant dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, ballistic missile programme and chemical and biological weapons under international monitoring in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner. It is not clear from the Joint Statement if President Trump subscribes to this interpretation of denuclearisation. Furthermore, Trump expects allies including South Korea and Japan to shoulder the cost of denuclearisation among themselves being “right next door” and since “the United States has been paying a big price in lot of different places”.1 For Pyongyang, it entails removal of US nuclear umbrella and extended deterrence from the Peninsula, withdrawal of US troops and end of US “hostile” policies. What constitutes “hostile” policy is another ambiguous area.
President Trump probably went to the Singapore Summit under considerable pressure to showcase tangible deliverables from his foreign policy in the backdrop of an intense trade war not only with “revisionist” China, engaged in crafting an international order “antithetical to US values and interests,”2 but also with its traditional allies, including the recent stand-off at the G7 meeting in Canada and withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal as well as from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris Accord. As Trump heads for mid-term elections later in the year, he needed to seize the historic opportunity that Korean Peninsula presented following Chairman Kim’s New Year speech where he articulated Pyongyang’s willingness to engage in dialogue.
Following the Singapore Summit, what has Trump achieved in terms of strengthening the US security as well as that of its East Asian allies? Leading up to this much anticipated summit, Pyongyang had already shut down the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, halted its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, committed itself to complete denuclearisation at Panmunjom Declaration3 and had also released three American hostages. While ushering in a “new” US-North Korea relations at Singapore, Trump secured a commitment on the issue of recovering remains of the American prisoners of war or those missing in action (POW/MIA) from the Korean War.
In pursuing an ‘America First’ policy, Trump appears to be ignoring the nuances of alliance management and instead prioritising a transactional approach towards allies in the region. Instead of investing in bolstering US alliance network with South Korea and Japan, Trump’s actions have eroded confidence in the decades-old alliance framework which served as the fulcrum of regional stability. The critical role played by South Korean President Moon Jae-in in deescalating tensions and driving the course of dialogue and facilitating the process of engagement not only in terms of inter-Korea relations but also the US-North Korea relations cannot be understated.
As US-South Korea alliance celebrates its 65th anniversary, lack of discussion with its allies before unilaterally suspending the US-South Korea war games, terming it as “very expensive”, “very provocative” and “inappropriate”4 not only reflects Trump’s inadequate understanding but also gives into one of the key North Korean demands. In addition, this move is certain to make China elated which has long championed the “suspension for suspension” proposal and “dual-track” approach, fiercely resisted by Washington up until recently.5 More importantly, as Trump spoke about his long-term ambition to pull out American soldiers stationed in South Korea, China stands to gain the most. Beijing will be more than happy to see presence of the US forces shrinking in its neighbourhood on one hand, and flaring rift between the US and its regional allies on the other.6
A few developments in Washington related to North Korea (in addition to trade frictions) have left US allies blind-sided at times. There is an urgent need to invest in building trust and maintaining robust communication. Besides the unilateral decision to suspend war games, when Trump issued a letter on May 24 cancelling the Singapore Summit and threatened military action and pushed South Korea and Japan to shoulder much of the financial burden, he did not extend the courtesy of informing President Moon Jae-in who was in Washington for a summit meeting couple of hours before. Similarly, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, who is struggling to have a say in the negotiation process despite Tokyo’s high security stakes concerning North Korea’s short and mid-range missiles, had visited Washington in frequent intervals seeking Trump’s understanding on the severe security environment surrounding Japan. Pyongyang’s history of directing short and mid-range missiles into the Sea of Japan has intensified Japan’s anxiety.7 Trump’s primary focus on securing continental US from North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) has left Japan tense. Japan fears scaling down of the US engagement from the region and favours augmenting trilateral cooperation with the US and South Korea.8
Immediately after the summit, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Seoul and Beijing on June 14. In Seoul, his objective was to reassure nervous US allies on one hand, and underscore US commitment to CVID and a timeline of 2020 for “major disarmament”9, which happens to be election year in the US, on the other. While Pompeo has visited Pyongyang twice, this was his maiden visit to Seoul. In Beijing his goal was to stress the continuation of UN sanctions on North Korea until denuclearisation is achieved as China and Russia are working on building a narrative towards easing of sanctions.
Following the Singapore summit, Chinese foreign ministry stated that “sanction itself is not the end, and the Security Council’s actions should support and conform to the diplomatic dialogue and the endeavour for the denuclearisation of the Peninsula at this point, and promote the political settlement of the Peninsula issue”.10 There is a perception that severe economic stress could lead to the collapse of Kim’s regime unleashing complex challenges for China.11 For Beijing, therefore, stability in the Peninsula comes first. Some experts argue that although denuclearisation is in China’s interest, “it still ranks stability above all else”.12
It is to Trump’s credit that he effectively employed coercive diplomacy together with military options that finally brought Chairman Kim to the negotiating table. His administration has certainly demonstrated the political will to impose effective secondary sanctions against Chinese and Russian entities beyond UNSC sanctions.13 But Trump’s attempts to “keep its partners in Seoul and Tokyo in the loop” leaves much to be desired. This may provide Pyongyang “potential openings to create fissures” and decouple US alliance framework with South Korea.14
Though the US-North Korea summit could be termed as historic in the sense that it brought the top leadership of the two countries together for the first time ever, but in terms of outcome it lacked concrete action plan mainly on how to achieve complete denuclearisation of the Peninsula, which has been the most contested issue. To translate the outcomes of the Singapore Summit into concrete deliverables, Trump administration would have to clearly define its denuclearisation action plan in terms of goals, methodology and timeline in consultation with the regional allies and ensure that differing voices in Washington do not add to the existing confusion. It should also clearly demonstrate to Pyongyang that tangible steps need to be undertaken immediately and very much under international monitoring, failing which there will be accountability, something which the dictatorial regime may not be familiar with. Year 2018 should not be a déjà vu of how North Korea failed to deliver on its previous commitments vis-à-vis the 1994 Agreed Framework, Clinton administration’s 2000 Joint Communiqué or the 2005 six-party joint statement on agreed steps toward denuclearisation.
North Korea has founded its regime stability on byungjin policy, pursuing economic development and nuclear weapons programme simultaneously. It had amended its constitution in 2013 to pronounce itself as a “nuclear state”. The latest Pentagon report to the US Congress underscores nuclear weapons as crucial to regime security, making the goal of denuclearisation a monumental challenge for Trump.15 Much will depend on how Secretary Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton navigate the difficult course ahead and avoid chances of strategic miscalculation while making sure that North Korea is not simply buying time before targeting continental US or its allies in the region.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.
About the author:
*Titli Basu is Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
This article was published by IDSA.
- 1. “Press Conference by President Trump”, The White House, June 12, 2018.
- 2. “National Security Strategy of the United States of America”, The White House, December 2017.
- 3. “Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea, April 27, 2018.
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- 8. Toby Dalton, Narushige Michishita and Tong Zhao, “Security Spillover: Regional Implications of Evolving Deterrence on the Korean Peninsula”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 11, 2018.
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- 10. no. 5.
- 11. Jennifer Lind, “Will Trump’s hardball tactics work on China and North Korea?”, CNN, August 07, 2017.
- 12. Eleanor Albert, “The China–North Korea Relationship”, Council on Foreign Relations, March 28, 2018.
- 13. Stephan M. Haggard, “Those North Korea sanctions might be working. Here’s why”, The Washington Post, April 06, 2018.
- 14. Victor Cha and Katrin Fraser Katz, “A Better North Korea Strategy: How to Coerce Pyongyang Without Starting a War”, Foreign Affairs, June 01, 2018.
- 15. Barbara Starr, “Pentagon’s damning assessment of Kim regime made public, with summit in balance”, CNN, May 23, 2018 and Anthony Capaccio, “Pentagon Says North Korea’s Regime Has Staked Its Survival on Nuclear Weapons”, Bloomberg, May 17, 2018.