Trump-Kim summit the art of the deal? No, say experts

AFP | US President Donald Trump (R) and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un (L) in Singapore, June 12, 2018.

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have hailed Tuesday’s summit in Singapore as a diplomatic breakthrough. Most analysts however disagree.


After that $20 million summit bill, with the stature of the United States of America -- particularly the prestige of the office of the US president – at stake, plus the trust and security concerns of Washington’s allies in East Asia, experts assessed that the unprecedented Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore didn’t amount to much.

A one-and-a-half page joint statement by the US and North Korean leaders, which was released Tuesday, was met with criticism from analysts and former diplomats on Twitter.

God, this is just depressing. All that hype for this? All that drama and the Nobel talk? Come, art of the deal. This is it? This is, well, pathetic given that the US president was personally involved,” tweeted Robert Kelly, a political science professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University, shortly after the joint statement text was released.

Comparisons between the latest US-North Korea joint communique and predecessors dating back to 2005, 2000 and the 1990s began to circulate – along with a dismal sense of déja-vu.

“Remember when they remade the movie Karate Kid 25 years later? This is what this is,” tweeted Vipin Narang from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology along with a split-screen image of the Trump-Kim statement and a June 11, 1993 US-North Korea joint statement. The communique signed a quarter-century ago though was between two officials below ministerial levels: a first vice minister of foreign affairs on the North Korean side and an assistance secretary of state on the US side.

Experts attempting a balanced opinion were scrambling to articulate positive developments beyond the first-ever, one-on-one meeting between the leaders of North Korea and the USA.

“This is the first bilateral political agreement between leaders of both countries. So in that sense, it's an important document. But basically, it's the bare minimum of what we could expect,” said Sebastian Harnisch, a North Korea expert at the Heidelberg University in Germany, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“It is impossible not to draw parallels with the commitments North Korea made in the 1990s. The goal of denuclearization was already on the table, and we find sentences that are almost identical…such as the will to work for a lasting peace.”

Neither ‘verifiable’ nor ‘irreversible’

The joint statement noted that “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK”, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, while Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”.

>> Read the full of the Trump-Kim joint statement

Pyongyang’s position in nuclear talks has long been the withdrawal of the so-called US nuclear umbrella of deterrence from South Korea, leading Harnisch to add, “It should also be noted that the text refers to a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and not North Korea. In other words, Pyongyang can interpret the document as granting it the right to send experts to ensure that the United States does not have a nuclear arsenal in South Korea.”

While prior joint communiques have included a “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”, they have always been preceded by “verifiable and irreversible”, terms that were noticeably absent in the Trump-Kim statement.

Absent also was any commitment to ending the Korean War -- a pledge that the leaders of North and South Korea agreed to in April at Panmunjom -- and that Trump was widely expected to deliver. The Korean War ground to a halt in 1953 with an armistice but no peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still technically in a state of war.

‘Stop giving stuff away’

If there was despair in Korea policy circles over the written text, it turned into depression hours later, when Trump held an extraordinary press conference, where he announced that he had made and received commitments from his North Korean counterpart that were not mentioned in the joint statement.

As news organisations began sending alerts of Trump declaring, “I trust Kim” and “We will be stopping the war games”, analysts appeared incredulous.

Two more Trump concessions just in this presser: stopping US-S Korea military exercises and hope to withdraw US troops from SK. And what have we gotten from NK for these? STOP GIVING STUFF AWAY for nothing,” pleaded Kelly.

‘Freeze for freeze’ compromise ‘for nothing’

Citing the expense of US military exercises, such as flying a bomber from the US military base in the Pacific island of Guam to South Korea, Trump said “the war games” would end since they were “tremendously expensive”. While Trump conceded that South Korea contributed to the costs, he noted that it was “not 100 percent”. Besides, Trump added, military exercises were “provocative”.

Abraham Denmark of the Woodrow Wilson International Center noted his opposition to what is called the “freeze for freeze” compromise. It equated US military exercises in South Korea, which are “stabilizing legal”, with North Korean nuclear missile testing that was “destabilizing illegal”, he tweeted. The problem, according to Denmark, was that Trump had “criticized the exercises as provocative and given them up for... nothing? Is this even linked to NK actions?

Trump also announced that the North Koreans had agreed to destroy “a major missile engine testing site”, without providing details about the facility.

Narang however was not impressed. “And all we got was a measley [sic] engine test stand getting blown? Which is like the easiest thing to rebuild? I’m totally confused about the art of this deal,” he tweeted.

Kim, the all-round winner

After all the build-up, the expenses, the saber rattling followed by on-again, off-again discourse, there appeared to be a consensus on at least one winner from the 2018 Singapore summit: North Korea’s 34-year-old leader.

“He acquires international stature and recognition of his regime through the establishment of 'new relations' with the United States. At the national level, his legitimacy is considerably strengthened,” Antoine Bondaz, from the Paris-based FRS (Fondation pour la Recherche Stratigique), told FRANCE 24. “Above all, Kim Jong Un saves time. The nuclear and ballistic programmes will be able to continue while the tensions and the risk of military escalation are reduced in the short term.”

When asked if Kim could claim a “mission accomplished” message when home, Harnisch replied, “In the sense that he got a lot and made few concessions, we can say, yes. Nevertheless, he still seems to have embarked on the path of openness of the regime, which is good news for everyone.”

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning