June 13, 2018
IntelBrief: The Singapore Conference
The mini-summit between U.S. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was neither a failure nor a success—and such reductionist terms obscure the significance of the meeting. The event is historic in that it is the first time a sitting U.S. president has met with the leader of North Korea. But there are too few details to assess the long-term outcomes of the discussion between the leaders, or the effect it will have on relations between South and North Korea.
The spectacle and the rhetoric surrounding the meeting fits both President Trump and Kim Jong-un’s preferences for over-the-top exhibitions of statesmanship. Immediate statements by the U.S. and South Korea have framed the meeting as a success. This might help with future negotiations that will be needed to turn the spectacle of these two leaders shaking hands into concrete, lasting change. If publicly declaring the meeting a success is for the benefit of the North Koreans, it will hopefully spur more meaningful cooperation and concessions. If, however, the statements are meant to simply puff up President Trump, the outcome of the meeting will likely be talking points and little else.
The statement signed by both leaders is essentially a restatement of previous agreements. President Trump said the U.S. was ‘committed to provide security guarantees’ while North Korea reaffirmed its ‘unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.’ These sentiments have been made before and with little change; North Korea still pushed ahead with its nuclear program. Unexpectedly, however, President Trump declared the U.S. was suspending joint military exercises with South Korea, one of the main sticking points with Pyongyang. It is unclear as to how long the U.S. will suspend joint military exercises with Seoul, or what metrics it will use to determine whether North Korea is keeping up its end of the agreement. The offer of the suspension was one of the U.S.’ strongest negotiation cards, one that it has now played early on and with no commensurate reciprocal gesture by Pyongyang. But if the talks result in a meaningful and lasting reduction of tensions between South Korea—which was reportedly surprised by the U.S. suspension—and the North, then such a step will be seen as quite effective. South Korea has always had the most to lose in the nuclear conflict between the U.S. and North Korea.
An important component of the Singapore summit beyond how it affects the Penninsula is how other nations will interpret its outcome. For parties like Iran, with nuclear ambitions but hopes to avoid confrontation with the U.S., a takeaway could be that producing and testing nuclear weapons, as North Korea has, puts them in a better negotiating position than simply hovering on the margins of nuclear capability. While that takeaway is in direct opposition to the U.S.’ stated counterproliferation strategy, events in Libya, Iran, and now North Korea provide templates for other states to follow. Thus, while it is still too early to provide accurate assessments of the significance of the Singapore summit, such assessments must take into account the optics of the meeting on global efforts of nuclear nonproliferation beyond North Korea alone.
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