The Koreas

The US-North Korea Summit: All Flash, Little Substance

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The Koreas

The US-North Korea Summit: All Flash, Little Substance

Trump’s haphazard approach to a historic event was not surprising. But what comes next?

The US-North Korea Summit: All Flash, Little Substance
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

U.S. President Donald Trump takes great pride in differentiating himself from his predecessors. By his telling, he is unique. He has the world’s best mind, memory, and negotiating skills. His administration will not make the same mistakes as those who came before. As he proclaimed during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, in reference to the domestic political system and the issue of law and order: “I alone can fix it.” He believes the same thing when it comes to foreign policy.

According to Trump, his inherently superior deal-making acumen can resolve even the thorniest of issues. No reading, preparation, or expertise is necessary. Ever-shifting and mutually exclusive policy pronouncements are part of his approach. It is all about attitude. And he has it.

From the outset of his presidency, Trump approached North Korea in just this manner. He was different, and where previous administrations failed, he would succeed. Tuesday’s summit meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong Un simultaneously offered a resounding (if superficial) confirmation but also outright refutation of his bombastic claims.

On the one hand, holding a summit with the North Korean leader was itself something no previous sitting U.S. president had done. Trump did it. On the other hand, meeting with Kim Jong Un with no preconditions or preparation, and with no discernible agreement in place, was not a challenge. Any president could do it. In fact, historically, such a direct meeting has been one of Pyongyang’s primary goals ever since Kim Il Sung was running the show. Trump proved he was different from his predecessors by rushing to grant Pyongyang’s longstanding wish.

Moreover, Trump’s inflated claims notwithstanding, the supposedly comprehensive deal, embodied in the Joint Statement released after the summit, is nothing more than several stated intentions, intentions which not only have been stated before, but which also are less detailed or specific than those in the 1994 Agreed Framework or 2005 Joint Statement.

Aside from a general commitment to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the statement made no reference to the supposedly sacrosanct complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) of North Korea; listed no specific commitment by North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, or chemical and biological stockpiles; gave no timeline for the same; and made no mention of human rights. When asked why his negotiating team had not secured more specific details and commitments from Pyongyang, Trump remarked, “Because there’s no time. I’m here one day… But the process is now going to take place.”

Who knows what further talks will bring, but, so far, the summit was nothing more than a first meeting; historic, yes, but only a meeting. Trump appears to believe that by flipping the normal script and having the high-level summit upfront, before any agreement has been reached, it will create the necessary momentum toward a final settlement down the road. At least, that is how he packaged it.

Still, as Van Jackson correctly cautions, “Any analysis of the summit has to start with the reality of Trump’s individual motivations,” which Jackson aptly describes as “corrupted [and] egoistic,” driven more by Trump’s impetuous decision making in an increasingly scandal-ridden domestic context than by any serious consideration of national interests. Any analysis must also directly highlight the inchoate and contradiction-strewn way Trump portrayed the summit and its outcome. A glance at Trump’s post-summit comments will suffice.

After the summit, Trump unsurprisingly stated that this “isn’t the past,” that this “isn’t another administration that never got it started and, therefore, never got it done.” Never mind the well-recorded fact that several previous administrations did start negotiations with Pyongyang, and made considerably more substantive progress than Trump has up to this point.

Next, Trump stressed how the summit brought us back from a potential conflict. However, we were only edging toward one because of Trump’s own warmongering statements about “fire and fury” and “destroying” all of North Korea. Relatedly, Trump stated that his own bellicose rhetoric is what got us to the summit to begin with, which conveniently sidesteps North Korea’s clearly advertised playbook (having almost nothing to do with Trump) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s dogged diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions. Moreover, Trump’s admission that his previous statements were just rhetoric openly betrays the fact that he was bluffing.

Trump then went on to state that he knows, for a fact, that Kim will immediately begin the process of denuclearization once he lands in North Korea, yet that it could still take a very long time. He followed this up by saying he will likely invite Kim to the White House (and maybe even visit Pyongyang himself). Then, despite his aforementioned certainty about Kim’s intent, Trump stated that maybe Kim will prove him wrong, in which case Trump will not actually admit it but will construct some sort of excuse. Trump made these various remarks in real time before dozens of rolling cameras.

Last, in reference to security guarantees, Trump said he was prepared to end the annual U.S.-South Korea “war games” because they are costly and “provocative” toward Pyongyang. He also reiterated his stance on eventually removing U.S. troops from the peninsula. In one fell swoop, Trump managed to take a position that neither the South Korean government nor the United States Forces Korea (USFK) was aware of or had been consulted about, and adopted Pyongyang’s very own language in doing so (i.e. provocative war games). This was either deliberate (which shows an astonishing disregard for the point of view of other key actors involved) or was haphazard and decided upon in the moment. Either possibility is not hard to imagine.

Incredibly, despite the lack of an actual substantive agreement, within a day of the summit Trump declared North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat to the United States. It would appear Trump believes that simply by saying something, it becomes so.

Nevertheless, setting aside Trump’s own impetuous motivations and demonstrably contradictory interpretations, it is important to gauge some near-term consequence of the summit for the region and North Korea itself. With this in mind, I asked two Korea-focused scholars several questions about the summit to try and make sense of things. Sandra Fahy is an associate professor of Anthropology at Sophia University. She is the author of Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea, and also just finished her second book about human rights and North Korea, both through Columbia University Press. Darcie Draudt is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at Johns Hopkins and a non-resident fellow James A. Kelley Korean Studies fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. She provides regular commentary on Korean affairs.

The Diplomat: Although it is likely too soon to say, what do you think will be the outcome of the summit in terms of regional relationships? More specifically, despite the Trump administration’s claim that sanctions will remain in place, do you see other countries loosening their adherence to the sanctions regime?

Fahy: Trump’s claim about removing troops and calling the ‘war games’ expensive and provocative was shocking to regional allies. Japan and South Korea were likely left confused and worried by these remarks. Asked whether he still thinks the human rights situation in North Korea needs to change, during the press interview Trump commented, “It’s rough. It’s rough in a lot of places, by the way.” Again, this was something that likely left many in Japan (thinking of the abduction issue) and South Korea (many defectors, and an even larger abduction rate than that of Japan) feeling ignored and overlooked. As for the sanctions, it’s hard to say. Some [countries] that are already loose on sanctions will see Trump’s approach as a tacit consent to continue.

Draudt: The summit definitely bolstered Kim’s image in the international arena, and while many other countries and international organizations will want to see the details of the plan for denuclearization, many governments and businesses are looking to North Korea for signs of change and opening — which could lead to pressure for sanctions relief. China will certainly be interested in taking an active role. And South Korea will continue to work hard to dial up investment and development plans, as well as other forms of humanitarian and cultural engagements.

The Diplomat: Domestic political considerations figure prominently in most things the Kim regime does. What do you see as the domestic political motivation behind Kim Jong Un’s summit trip? And do you think the summit achieved his aims?

Fahy: North Korea has always framed the United States as hostile to it – and thus justifying their bellicose attitude toward the United States and its allies. So the fact that the United States is now reaching out in peace undermines that. How will this be presented and interpreted domestically? Likely, the summit will be used to frame the DPRK as powerful politically in the international realm, and KJU as admired and powerful. This could have the impact of leading ordinary North Koreans to believe that should they wish to overthrow KJU their efforts would not be supported internationally. As the details of the summit agreement are clarified North Korea can then say the United States played bait and switch.

As for domestic politics, which could have encouraged KJU to go to the summit in Singapore… there could be some strong figures in government that are encouraging KJU to engage with the international community on economic matters – seeing that there is no way for the country to survive unless it does so. Alternatively, they could be eyeing the old Centrus Energy Corp enterprise of “megatons to megawatts” between the United States and Russia, hoping for something similar.

Draudt: The summit cements Kim’s legitimacy as North Korea’s leader — he’ll be able to say at home that he sat down with the leader of the United States, the world superpower and biggest adversary of North Korea. He’ll now be able to push the country to the second leg of his byungjin policy — economic development.

The Diplomat: Relatedly, the regime has wasted little time broadcasting Kim Jong Un’s trip to Singapore in its official state media. In particular, what is your impression of Rodong Sinmun so prominently featuring Kim’s nighttime tour around the city, stressing the level of knowledge and development Singapore has to offer?

Fahy: I suspect that Singapore’s “knowledge and development” will be presented as something fully within reach of the DPRK, if only the United States and other imperialists would unchain the country from sanctions and other “acts of aggression.”

Draudt: The fact that Rodong Sinmun is lauding Singapore as an example of development gives credence to optimists’ claims that Kim is ready to engage — at least economically — with the outside world. While it’s too soon to say whether that will have effects on the governance of North Korea, it’s quite remarkable compared North Korea’s portrayal of other countries in the past.