The much-anticipated summit between American President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12 made world news, some touting it as the biggest story of the century. Analysts world over have dissected every bit of what transpired and the contents of the joint statement. Such intense scrutiny on the merits or demerits thereof does not undermine the significance of this historic event, however.
The most visible outcome of the summit is the diplomatic concession from the United States: the suspension of joint US-ROK military drills while diplomacy between the two countries continues. And contrary to the expectations of many, the joint statement signed between the two leaders did not include any commitments from the North on complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization or CVID, previously cited by Washington as the only acceptable outcome of the summit.
In broad terms, the joint declaration included a commitment by North Korea to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and the establishment of security guarantees from Washington in return. While the four key remaining countries involved in the original Six-Party denuclearization talks all spoke positively about the summit, each had their own unique take on the event.
Not to be left behind, back home Trump yearned for praise over the deal he struck with Kim. Trump boasted that it is easy for making war but only the courageous ones who make peace. Trump boasted that his deal with Kim will save tens of millions of people from a potential nuclear war and that he now needs to get everyone else on board. He was clearly not happy with the lukewarm backing from congressional Republicans and criticism from Democratic opponents, besides scepticism from allies and media that the terms of the joint statement were vague and lacking in clear objectives. Trump seems to be frustrated that his expectations of a hero’s welcome were not forthcoming after he returned from Singapore.
The big question that begs an answer is: was Trump successful as a master deal maker or does his agreement with Kim represent a major step toward solving an intractable foreign policy problem? Though there could be no ready answer that could assuage the negativities being floated around, Trump felt justified that not everyone was on the same page as him.
In defense of the agreement he reached at Singapore wherein Kim agreed to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula, Trump claimed that it has led to an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear tests and “rockets flying all over the place”. Trump was annoyed with those who were critical that he signed an agreement that was not specific enough to ensure an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. The agreement said Kim “reaffirmed his form and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”, but set no timetable for the disarmament or terms for independent inspections of North Korean nuclear sites.
Much whatsoever Trump might feel triumphant about achieving something that looked unachievable days ago, his goal of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, even in the most optimistic case, probably will take years. This possibility is contingent upon Pyongyang standing up to its commitment and not violate, as it has every previous nuclear agreement.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that negotiations will resume soon, and that the US “most definitely” is expecting verifiable North Korean action to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula by the end of Trump’s first term in the White House in January 2021.
Then the question of hierarchy in diplomatic protocol is being raised that Trump is accused of having violated. Trump’s public embrace of Kim is perceived as an endorsement of Kim’s autocratic leadership style, including what Trump said was a joke about the obedience of Kim’s advisors. Trump seems to have said that Kim was doing what was needed for peace.
Trump also faced heat back at home for going against presidential norms by saluting a North Korean general. In the 42-minute video of the summit aired by North Korea’s state news channel, Trump was shown meeting various North Korean officials, including a North Korean military general. The general first salutes Trump, to which the president salutes back, before shaking his hand. Kim was seen smiling in the background. While Senator Chris Van Hollen called Trump’s act days after he bashed up traditional US allies over trade disputes at a G-7 meeting as “nauseating”, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump’s action, calling it “a common courtesy”.
According to military and intelligence experts, US presidents typically do not salute military officials from adversarial nations. Washington and Pyongyang have no formal diplomatic relationship, and North Korea is still technically at war with South Korea, a key US ally. Normally there is a protocol for military salutes and therefore military veterans saw Trump’s salute as “wholly inappropriate”.
Human rights activists have for long admonished North Korean regime for its record of detaining and punishing thousands of people in prison camps. Pyongyang has been responsible for “a regime of terror, murder and unspeakable horror against its own people”. Trump was accused for not raising this issue during his meeting with Kim. However, conservatives who defended Trump cited former president Barack Obama giving a thumbs-up to the Cuban military and “giving a bro shake” to then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Obama was also criticised for bowing to Emperor Akihito when he visited Japan in 2009. Conservatives then criticised Obama’s move displayed weakness from the US on the world stage. Obama was also criticised the same year for bowing to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
Irrespective of going to the merit or demerits of the Trump’s and Obama’s acts, it is expected that a president is aware of proper protocol when interacting with foreign military officials.
Another major decision that came out immediately after the summit was the announcement by Trump to end military exercises with South Korea. The annual drills have been an irritant to North Korea, perceived as a rehearsal for eventual invasion. This major announcement was to facilitate smooth finalisation of terms of the denuclearization. Trump terms the drills as “very expensive” and “provocative”. This might lead to rethink in Japan and South Korea about their security postures until at least denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula is completed, if at all.