Doubts and questions swirled before the momentous 12 June summit in Singapore between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Could any good come of a meeting for which preparation seemed to be last-minute and inadequate? Was one of the two unconventional, risk-taking leaders going to pull a rabbit out of a hat? Whose purposes would the summit serve? Was it theatre channelling the domestic political compulsions of Trump and/or Kim? Would it live up to the hopes and calm the fears of U.S. allies South Korea and Japan? Would it bolster or weaken regional security and the balance of power? Would it satisfy China’s desire to maintain the status quo?
Most important, would the summit put the Korean peninsula on a pathway to peace?
At Crisis Group, we cautioned against going into the summit with expectations too high for a comprehensive agreement on the denuclearisation of the peninsula. “It would be far more realistic”, we wrote, “for the parties to aim for a statement of principles that in general language addresses each party’s key strategic requirements, commits them to meeting again, and formally locks in place the current moratorium on nuclear and missile testing”.
We argued that North Korea should put in writing its unspoken freeze, since November 2017, of missile and nuclear testing, and that the U.S. should pause those of its military exercises with South Korea that Pyongyang saw as most provocative. We said these steps could lead to a broader “action-for-action” plan aimed at a deep freeze of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons, long-range missiles and key related materials, capping their production in a verifiable way, in return for which the U.S. and international community would lighten the heavy sanctions and diplomatic pressure aimed at North Korea. As the summit approached, the Trump administration gave welcome signs of abandoning its goal of a “big bang” deal in favour of a phased process.
We also admonished observers not to take a U.S.-centric view of the process, noting that others had vital interest in the outcome, would influence developments and should have a say. We had argued in a previous report that coordination between allies, in particular, and other interested actors was essential. Seoul desires to diminish the risk of war and fulfil the Moon Jae-in administration’s promise of rapprochement with the North, impelling it to help draw Pyongyang and Washington together. Beijing wants to maintain the prevailing strategic balance or shift it in Chinese favour, and to guard against a turnaround that could see Pyongyang cosy up to Washington. Tokyo, a staunch U.S. ally with a lot at stake but no independent ability to influence developments, is keen to protect its strategic interests, including reducing its vulnerability to North Korean shorter-range missiles and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
In the end, the text of the statement Kim and Trump signed was vague – perhaps vaguer than even sceptics expected. But the most important element could turn out to be the meeting itself.
Our experts on the United States and North East Asia assess how the summit played out, in light of our recommendations:
In Washington, Consternation – and Breathing Room
Stephen Pomper, U.S. Program Director
There are several reasons to feel relieved by the summit. It opened the gateway to a diplomatic process and extended the calm that began in early 2018 with the “Olympic truce” – whereby the U.S. and South Korea ratcheted down military exercises and North Korea froze missile and nuclear testing. The hard work of hammering out a path toward denuclearisation will now be led on the U.S. side by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. President Trump’s hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton – an arch-sceptic of diplomacy’s effectiveness for disarming states like North Korea – sat little noticed on the sidelines of the discussion. Indeed, Bolton’s biggest contribution may have been a photograph of him shaking hands with Kim Jong-un, which was published on 13 June, no doubt with rich ironic intent, by the North Korean ruling Workers’ Party daily bulletin, Rodong Sinmun.
As the summit coverage went on it was hard to remember that just months ago commentators were fretting that Trump might leave the meeting frustrated by predictable North Korean reluctance to make firm commitments on denuclearisation, and that he would use that wariness as a pretext for declaring diplomacy a failure and putting the United States on a fast track to war.
Worries that Trump would march the U.S. into war have now been replaced by worries that he has given away the store on everything from human rights to the global non-proliferation regime to the regional alliances that have anchored the U.S. in North East Asia since the Korean War armistice in 1953.
These concerns are not solely focused on the document negotiated by the parties, though that had few fans in Washington expert circles. Yes, critics noted that the agreement was paper-thin, putting no meat on the bones of Pyongyang’s now-standard vague commitment to denuclearisation. And students of Washington-Pyongyang relations pointed out that it represented little if any progress from past joint statements, and fell far short of the rigour of the 1994 Agreed Framework on denuclearisation that Bolton regarded as feckless and worked to unravel while a senior official in the George W. Bush administration.
The more pressing concern in Washington, though, was what Trump said and did on the margins of the meeting. Perhaps the biggest bombshell came during an appearance before the press, when he announced that the U.S. would halt its “war games” with South Korea (which he described as “provocative”) as long as Pyongyang’s moratorium on nuclear and missile testing continued, and the two sides were still talking. It was unclear whether Trump was referring to all joint exercises with South Korean forces or just the drills Pyongyang finds most vexing (eg, those involving nuclear assets, simulating the “decapitation” of the Kim government or occurring at harvest time in North Korea). But the prevailing interpretation was that Trump’s announcement was broadly meant. It was a surprise to U.S. partners South Korea and Japan (and even, it appears, to the U.S. military), but it was bracing on several levels. In calling the exercises “provocative” and “expensive”, Trump underscored to U.S. allies around the world how deeply he resents the financial costs of these ties – a point he had already illustrated at the contentious Charlevoix G7 summit immediately before the meeting with Kim. Trump also used the occasion to remind Korea and Japan that his ultimate ambition is to withdraw U.S. forces from the peninsula, a move that would have profound strategic implications.
Beyond the joint exercises announcement, criticism tended to focus on the overall symbolism of the meeting and Trump’s bonhomie with Kim, whom he lauded as “funny” and “very talented”, someone who “loves his people” and whom his “country love[s]” with “fervour”. The latter characterisations were particularly jarring against the backdrop of credible allegations by a UN commission of inquiry that the Kim regime is responsible for crimes against humanity on a vast scale. The warmth of Trump’s comments about Kim, although serving the understandable goal of fostering a personal relationship, which could translate into greater North Korean willingness to offer small gestures down the road, also stood in stark contrast to his less affectionate treatment of U.S. allies at Charlevoix. Non-proliferation experts also expressed concern that the welcome for Kim at Singapore effectively “normalised” North Korea as a nuclear power and sent a message that the surest way into Washington’s good graces is to acquire nuclear weapons and an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) delivery platform.
And then there was a bottom-line concern that, adding up all the elements, North Korea came out ahead of the U.S. on points. It was unclear what Washington had received in return for a U.S. commitment to end military exercises, a photo opportunity with the U.S. president and the effective end of the “maximum pressure” the U.S. had exerted on North Korea throughout 2017 and 2018 to date. President Trump spoke in his press conference about a North Korean commitment not included in the joint statement to close a missile engine facility but without specifying which facility or whether outside inspectors would be allowed in to verify the closure. If Trump obtained any concessions of substance from Kim at the summit, he did a poor job of explaining what they were.
Upon his return to Washington, Trump tweeted triumphantly that “everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office”, adding, “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea”. This claim is misleading on two counts. First, to the extent that there was a threat prior to the summit, it is still there: Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal is no weaker today than it has been for months. Second, there arguably never was the kind of threat that deterrence and pressure could not address. The only obvious menace was ill-considered hyperbole from both sides. In that sense, the summit essentially lowered tensions that the two protagonists themselves had recklessly created.
Nevertheless, for all the criticism (much of it legitimate), most experts acknowledged that the world is likely safer because Trump and Kim have shifted from a confrontational track into a diplomatic one, even if they needlessly had put their two countries on the former track in the first place. While there was no outpouring of congressional appreciation for the summit statement, Republicans tended to mute their criticism (although a number expressed intent to press for congressional involvement in approving any outcome), and Trump seemed unlikely to be moved by Democratic complaints. In short, the Trump-Kim pledge appeared to be on solid political ground in the United States, as Secretary of State Pompeo readied to take up the extraordinary challenge of carrying it out.
Views from the Korean Peninsula
Christopher Green, Senior Adviser, Korean Peninsula
A Modest Win for Kim
For Kim Jong-un and North Korea, the real rewards have been in perception and positioning. How Kim’s performance – and thus the summit’s benefit to North Korea – is assessed at home depends on whether you are part of the Pyongyang establishment, which saw the potential for significant gains, or one of the country’s ordinary residents, many of whom have come to harbour hopes for the future in light of the rapidly changing diplomatic environment, but with a keen awareness of how readily past hopes were dashed.
As Kim departed for Pyongyang on an Air China 747 outfitted for VIPs and provided by the Chinese government, he ought to have been relatively pleased with the outcome for himself and for the regime. For North Korea and its leader to be playing on a field with the United States almost certainly was a win in itself. Kim also left Singapore having at least slightly reduced North Korea’s spectrum of security concerns, and having alleviated some financial pressures on regime coffers, even if UN sanctions formally remain in place.
Kim came home with a major legitimacy boost. Since he returned on 13 June, state television has shown North Koreans powerful images in a 42-minute documentary several times per day: a smiling Kim fêted in Singapore as a prominent world leader, sweeping down streets lined with onlookers and being greeted as an equal by the U.S. president. Neither his father nor his grandfather ever achieved any of these things. The symbolism of the summit undoubtedly reinforces Kim’s position as the only legitimate source of authority in North Korea.
Korean People’s Army officials will have more concrete reasons to be pleased: Kim extracted a commitment from Trump not to conduct “provocative” military exercises for the duration of talks. And Trump made plain his desire to withdraw U.S. troops at some point from the peninsula.
Critically, for the medium term, Kim leaned forward into dialogue just far enough to prompt both China and Russia to propose the easing of sanctions. Though formal sanctions relief is implausible straightaway, neither Beijing nor Moscow is now likely to enforce existing sanctions with anything approaching the energy that China, in particular, brought to the task last year. A few thousand individuals, families and some government institutions in Pyongyang and border cities of North Korea had been doing extremely well in the cross-border trade in textiles, seafood and natural resources from the turn of the century until 2017. For these groups, the summit brought excellent news. A resumption of this trade will likely lift their incomes back to pre-crisis levels.
Elsewhere, however, the results were less clear. The summit joint statement was a declaration of principles, never intended to be a detailed roadmap. As a result, it brought little concreteness in terms of longer-term prospects on the security, economic or political fields. The security guarantees offered by the U.S. are as vague as Kim’s own promises of denuclearisation, and neither he nor his generals will have the luxury of trusting them. Pervasive cross-cutting surveillance structures minimise the risk of a coup, but Kim nevertheless will want to keep the military and security services on side with a negotiated process down the road. Old-guard conservatives of Kim Jong-il’s generation, dominant in key departments of the Korean Workers’ Party and People’s Army, have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. They will likely support change only if their control is not challenged. Nor did the summit immediately pave the way to new investment from abroad, a goal which must await the removal of sanctions. Until close economic cooperation with South Korea becomes possible, Kim lacks the option of buttressing domestic support – in the military and among the Pyongyang establishment – by conferring significant new economic opportunities upon loyalists, a key mechanism by which he maintains his rule.
There are big challenges ahead, then. The summit has elevated Kim’s status and raised hopes at home for economic and political change, but mention of denuclearisation has spurred surprise and discontent in a society that was told for decades that all its sacrifices were made in the cause of defending the nation against U.S. aggression.
In South Korea, Conservatives Stunned, but Summit Support Strong
South Korea emerged divided from the summit. Virtually all agree that U.S.-Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) talks are preferable to the aggressive rhetoric and actions of 2017, and the summit outcome is popular with a majority of the population. But there is concern in some circles that the U.S. is once again making key security decisions, in this case about military exercises, without consulting its South Korean ally, and that President Trump gave North Korea too much, too soon and too cheaply.
Public discussion of the summit centred initially on this last point, primarily the surprising – though vague – announcement by Trump during his press conference that he would stop military drills with South Korea, which both countries have tended to see as integral to the bilateral alliance and military cooperation.
While President Moon Jae-in’s administration has now acknowledged that it was blindsided by Trump’s announcement, at the time it avoided passing judgment until the facts could be established. South Korea’s Ministry of National Defence said only that it did not know the “meaning” or “intent” behind Trump’s words. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence quickly sought to clarify the issue, informing concerned Senate Republicans that some “training exchanges and readiness training” with the South Korean military would continue, but that “war games” would not. But it was too late. Conservative South Koreans were livid.
Hong Joon-pyo, then still leader of the main conservative Liberty Korea Party (LKP), said South Korea’s national security was teetering on the edge of a precipice. Pressing on a raw nerve, he highlighted the sense that Seoul was once again being ignored by a great power, claiming the halting of joint exercises “brings to mind the Taft-Katsura Agreement”, the 1905 memorandum in which the U.S. acquiesced to a Japanese “protectorate” in Korea. He likewise referred to the British capitulation to Hitler at Munich in 1938 and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s meetings with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho in Paris in the 1970s. He was supported by the predominantly conservative domestic media.
In truth, however, the Moon administration proved too strong to be undermined by Hong, whose party was badly weakened by the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye in March 2017. Indeed, Moon’s administration emerged from the week’s events in a better position than it went in. Highlighting the ineffectiveness of Hong’s fear-mongering, last-ditch intervention, the ruling party won a landslide in local elections on 13 June, taking 14 of 17 provincial governorships, including several traditionally conservative strongholds, and forcing Hong to resign the next morning. Moon’s personal favourability rating also ticked back up toward 80 per cent following a month of decline that was mainly due to domestic reasons, namely a perceived failure to bring about promised economic improvements.
Post-Singapore opinion polling shows support for the outcome of the U.S.-DPRK meeting, with 66 per cent of those surveyed in favour, versus just 11 per cent against. It is not possible to establish whether respondents support the summit outcome simply as preferable to war or as a job well done in its own right. But there is a growing belief that negotiations could bear fruit. Fifty-three per cent of respondents even said they believe that North Korea will abide by the content of the U.S.-DPRK joint summit statement.
Practical changes are still some distance away, however. The business community appears to be watching in silence, waiting to see what steps North Korea will take next. The head of the Presidential Committee on Northern Economic Cooperation, which deals with inter-agency coordination on economic cooperation with North Korea, cautioned on 15 June that he expects practical projects to begin only after “meaningful follow-ups” from Pyongyang.
In the end, then, the Singapore meeting marked a high point in a diplomatic process that Moon is personally credited with fostering, and ultimately his administration benefited electorally from the symbolism of it. But Moon still has to worry that accusations of weakness on security will eventually hit home. Loose U.S. talk about cancelling military exercises and withdrawing troops, moves that would be seen as potentially imperilling South Korean national defence (regardless of whether that was true in practice), will not help, and could spur violent clashes over where the national interest lies – with North Korean ethnic brethren or with the American ally. On 15 June, the conservative bellwether Chosun Ilbo accused Trump of gifting Kim security guarantees and the cancellation of military exercises, for which all he received in return was the destruction of two useless pieces of infrastructure, a missile test stand and the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, neither of which North Korea needs any longer. North Korean denuclearisation is receding from view once again, the editorial warned. Only the U.S.-South Korean alliance is getting weaker.
For Beijing, Good News
Michael Kovrig, Senior Adviser, North East Asia
China is surely pleased with the summit’s outcome. It avoided Beijing’s two nightmare scenarios of abject failure, renewing a drive to war or full U.S.-North Korea entente, and set the stage for long and complex negotiations. The fact that Kim made the journey aboard an Air China 747 – reportedly Premier Li Keqiang’s official jet – that spent most of its flight time in Chinese airspace further signalled the recovery of trust and alignment of interests in the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship. If the U.S. follows through on Trump’s announcement of a halt to military exercises, that, too, will be welcome in Beijing, where the drills are an unwanted assertion of American power at China’s doorstep. Trump’s evident lack of consultation with U.S. allies on this move, coupled with his clear desire to reduce troop commitments, constituted a bonus prize.
The foreign ministry and state news service Xinhua took the angle that the U.S. and DPRK were now following China’s long-advocated “dual-track” approach of progress toward denuclearisation and a peace mechanism. Foreign Minister Wang Yi likely enjoyed the opportunity to describe the summit as “an equal conversation”. The Global Times newspaper reckoned the most significant aspect was Trump’s written commitment to provide security guarantees. It also chose to interpret the phrase “new U.S.-DPRK relations” in the summit statement as signalling intent to end what Pyongyang has long called Washington’s “hostile policy”. Chinese analysts were quick to note that actual implementation of these pledges would require Beijing’s cooperation. Meeting with Mike Pompeo on 14 June, President Xi Jinping emphasised that the issue must be resolved step by step.
As long as Pyongyang maintains its testing freeze, the pressure is off Beijing to enforce sanctions stringently and on Washington to make negotiations work. Indeed, China already has called upon the UN Security Council to scale back sanctions, as anecdotes circulate of relaxed enforcement. The prospects of getting China to increase pressure on North Korea if it drags its feet are declining steeply, particularly with Washington’s 15 June announcement of trade sanctions on Beijing. Chinese policymakers likely view this as abrogating a tacit understanding that help with North Korea would be met with greater flexibility on trade. The latest Beijing consensus is probably that both Trump and Kim are untrustworthy, but the U.S. president is more impulsive, erratic and dangerous, necessitating closer coordination with Pyongyang, Seoul, Moscow and Tokyo to shape the path ahead.
China will now seek to deepen its influence on a newly cooperative North Korea. That will include efforts to reinvigorate economic cooperation plans and insert Chinese preferences into North Korean negotiating positions, including a peace treaty or similar mechanism and removing U.S. military assets, particularly the THAAD ballistic missile defence system, from South Korea. Expect Beijing to continue pressing for four-party talks, some of which could be hosted in China, and for Xi to visit Pyongyang. In the meantime, if China assesses that sanctions are placing an undue burden on North Korea, it could send humanitarian assistance.
Chinese businesses are likely to take their cue from the positive tone of the summit and warming Sino-DPRK relations and make renewed efforts to trade and invest, whether legal or otherwise. At his Singapore press conference Trump spoke of North Korea’s beaches and urged the world to see the country “from a real estate perspective”. China could not agree more.
Japan Watches and Waits
Michael Kovrig, Senior Adviser, North East Asia
Japan’s worst fears were not realised. Precisely because the summit joint statement is so vague, it does not compromise Japan’s core national interests. It does not mention North Korea’s freeze on nuclear and missile testing, and so it does not define which missiles are and are not included in that freeze. This ambiguity will drive Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to continue pressing U.S. negotiators to be mindful of Japan’s interests, notably curbs on intermediate-range ballistic missiles and clarity about the fate of citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. President Trump’s remarks about military exercises are of great concern to Tokyo, which favours a firm line and wants to make no concessions without tangible progress toward disarmament on North Korea’s part. Most worrying to Japan was Trump’s reiteration of his view that the U.S. troop presence in South Korea is an unwanted burden. Japan itself hosts about 53,000 American military personnel on- and offshore and sees such deployments as crucial symbols of Washington’s commitment to defend its allies. A peace treaty without removal of all weapons of mass destruction would likewise deeply trouble Tokyo.
Not wanting to be left out of the flurry of diplomacy, Abe will now seek a follow-up discussion with Trump in hopes of further reassurance. There is also discussion in Tokyo of seeking a summit with Kim to press for closure on the abductees, but doing so could reopen the issue of Japan finally unfreezing reparations to the DPRK for World War II. Such a large financial transfer would undermine the impact of sanctions.
In his book Summits: Six Meetings That Shaped the Twentieth Century, historian David Reynolds describes such meetings of statesmen as “made possible by air travel, made necessary by weapons of mass destruction and made into household news by the new mass media”. That line aptly describes the diplomatic whirlwind that blew through Singapore this past week. Reynolds concludes that few summits achieve the aims that the participants hoped for. The usual culprit is hubris. Leaders tend to exaggerate the importance of their personal talents, miss the complexity of geopolitical challenges and underestimate the intractability of clashing national interests. That, too, could describe the Trump-Kim summit.
Whether 21st-century historians eventually look more kindly upon the first-ever meeting of the U.S. and DPRK leaders will depend on what happens in the coming months, when Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart will attempt to build a viable structure upon the foundation set in Singapore. We, at Crisis Group, will continue to provide analysis and advice.