Trans-Pacific View

US-North Korea Summit: Short-Term Gain, Long-Term Loss?

Insights from Soo Kim.

US-North Korea Summit: Short-Term Gain, Long-Term Loss?
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Soo Kim – former intelligence officer at the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in leadership intentions, nuclear proliferation, and propaganda analysis and 2015 National Security Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies – is the 144th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Assess the outcomes of the U.S.-North Korea Summit.

At the end of the Singapore summit, Washington and Pyongyang signed a joint statement outlining four broad goals: establishing new bilateral relations for peace and prosperity, efforts to build a stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s commitment to work toward complete denuclearization of the Peninsula, and the recovery and repatriation of POWs/MIAs. Most critically, the statement makes no mention of North Korea’s complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) – what had been up to this point a deal-breaker for the U.S. in negotiations with the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the formal name for North Korea].

The joint statement is loosely worded, with loopholes and no specifics on how and when Pyongyang will denuclearize. We heard secondhand through President Trump that Kim Jong Un is sincere in his commitment to denuclearization, and that the two leaders have – in less than 24 hours – established enough confidence for the president to walk away from the talks without a more securely worded agreement from the regime. President Trump also declared North Korea no longer being a nuclear threat – again, on the basis of the trust built in Singapore.

The day after the summit, North Korea’s KCNA carried a report touting the summit as an historical achievement due in large part to the two leaders’ combined efforts. At the same time, the report placed the onus on Washington to hold up its end of the deal as defined by Kim Jong Un – that is, earn Pyongyang’s trust through goodwill measures, such as the lifting of economic sanctions, halting U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, and security guarantees to the DPRK regime.

Did President Trump advance U.S. leadership in Northeast Asia post-summit?  

This is a very critical question considering the developments in Singapore. Granted, the summit was a meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, [but] this was a meeting wherein the collective concerns of the region were to be broached and discussed. The concern, as we know, stemmed from the North Korean regime’s nuclear weapons threat. Prior to the summit, the Trump administration had consistently insisted upon Pyongyang’s CVID – and so we expected, with a grain of skepticism, the topic to be raised at the summit. We knew that the likelihood of North Korea assenting to an all-or-nothing CVID would be very slim, given previous experience dealing with the regime.

The summit’s deliverables, however, revealed otherwise. No mention of CVID. And just one day after the summit, North Korea boldly threw the ball into President Trump’s court – the U.S. would have to demonstrate sincerity in building trust with the DPRK as a condition for improving relations and peace in the region. If anything, this shows that Kim was unfazed by President Trump’s stature as the leader of the world’s most powerful country.

What did North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un gain and lose from this meeting?

The Singapore summit was a “win” for Kim on several fronts. At the most basic level, Kim used the summit as a vehicle to burnish his public image. Seeing the notorious North Korean “dictator” leisurely walking through the streets of Singapore the night before the historic encounter with President Trump, the average person would easily scratch their heads, wondering if this was indeed the very same ruthless, cold tyrant — who executed his own uncle and had his half-brother assassinated — we were accustomed to dealing with. In so doing, Kim further shed his old image, demonstrating to the world that he is “no different” from other leaders. Kim also dispelled the perception that he might be nervous to step outside of his comfort zone by coolly acting like a tourist, taking selfies with Singaporean leaders, waving to the public – while the U.S. team slaved over the fine points of the bilateral agreement in the weeks leading up to the summit. Additionally, Kim scored huge points in the prestige category – no North Korean leader has ever sat face-to-face with a sitting U.S. president. Kim, sitting across President Trump at the table, elevated his stature from an isolated dictator to a world leader on equal footing as the president of the world’s most powerful country.

Most critically, Kim walked away from the Singapore talks without having to articulate a timetable or concrete steps to denuclearize – ostensibly, this was the purpose of the Trump-Kim summit in the first place. The fluidly constructed joint statement seems incongruous to the intense preparations and discussions between U.S. and North Korean officials in the weeks (possibly months) leading up to the summit. I think many of us are asking one way or another, “Where are the fruits of the hard labor?”

Evaluate the impact of U.S. messaging during the summit on South Korea, Japan, and China.

President Trump’s broad message to the international audience was that the United States will not hesitate to “go it alone,” even on critical issues of far-reaching regional implications. Countries like South Korea and Japan depend to a great extent upon the U.S. alliance for their security. That the U.S. president met face-to-face with the leader of a rogue regime, complimented Kim’s leadership abilities, and pushed the envelope further by taking Kim’s word on denuclearization not only holds in suspense the security and interests of Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing; it also places Washington’s own sincerity and commitment to the alliance in serious question.

What are the foreign policy implications of the Trump-Kim summit?  

It remains to be seen whether President Trump’s decisions are motivated by short- or long-term considerations. Short-term considerations – approval ratings at home, perhaps even scoring a presidential legacy – may not account for the political, security, and economic repercussions in the region. Pulling troops out of strategically important allied countries may, in the short-run, help us cut back on defense spending. But imagine the symbolic message such actions send to allied nations about our commitment to the region and to the partnership. Not to mention, the costs (ironically) of dealing with a regional fallout that could have been prevented with a more prudent approach would ultimately also be a significant burden on Washington. A short-sighted hand in this generations-long debate could wear away at the alliance and ultimately to U.S. interests at home and abroad.

The dust has yet to settle on the North Korean dilemma. It is advisable that Washington take the time to recalibrate its interests and position vis-à-vis Pyongyang to not only ensure peace and stability in Northeast Asia, but to safeguard long-term U.S. interests.