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Decoding The Kim-Donald Show

Last updated on: June 13, 2018 10:48 IST

'In the run-up to the summit, Trump had indicated that he might strike a nuclear deal in the course of a single meeting or over several days, but as it transpired, Trump departed Singapore soon after the meeting.'
'This raises questions if his aspirations for an ambitious outcome had been scaled back,' says Rajaram Panda.

IMAGE: Rocket man should have been handled a long time ago. We can't have mad men out there shooting rockets all over the place,' Donald Trump said last September of the North Korean dictator who he called 'a very talented man' after his summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, June 12, 2018. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

History was made on June 12 when US President Donald J Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in Singapore in what was the first-ever meeting at a summit level by a sitting American president and a North Korean leader since the end of the Korean War that had ended in a ceasefire but without a peace treaty.

The core issue at the table was how to denuclearise North Korea.

From the very start the issue of denuclearisation was problematic as the interpretation of what denuclearisation meant was different to both sides.

What preceded the summit proposal was immersed in a plenty of uncertainty, lurking doubts if the summit would ever take place.

But diplomacy finally prevailed and Trump and Kim met and in a major breakthrough signed the 'comprehensive pact', prompting Trump to announce soon enough that the de-nuclearisation process will begin soon.

In a joint text issued after the meeting, Kim committed to 'complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula'.

The statement was almost immediately endorsed by China, North Korea's principal ally and benefactor.

Earlier, Trump announced that both he and Kim signed an unspecified document, which he called 'pretty comprehensive'.

From his side, Kim announced that both sides decided to 'leave the past' behind and that 'the world shall see a major change'.


The summit finally happening after a year of exchanging warmongering threats and personal insults was truly historic. Kim having committed to 'complete denuclearisation', both leaders vowed in the joint agreement to establish 'new' relations between the two countries.

However, the text made no mention of US demands for 'complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation' or CVID, which implied scrapping weapons and committing to inspections.

From a time when both exchanged vitriolic diatribes and bellicose statements, threatening to annihilate each other not long ago, to hear Trump saying he had formed a 'special bond' with Kim and expressing willingness to invite him to the White House was music to the ears.

The truism is that the dramatic turnaround now is real.

That is how modern diplomacy is being conducted, with Trump leaving his own style.

Hailing his 'excellent' relationship with Kim, Trump predicted that both leaders will 'solve' the Korean Peninsula stand-off and that the 40-minute one-on-one meeting was a 'tremendous success'.

The instant bonhomie had to be seen to be believed. With big gaps in age between the two leaders (Trump will be 72 on Thursday, June 14; Kim is 34), the 12-second handshake as they met for the first time in front of American and North Korean flags on the steps of the Capella hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore, with Trump patting Kim on the arm and sharing some words before posing for the cameras.

The body language demonstrated warmth as both expressed optimism even when the meeting took place.

While Kim greeted Trump with the words 'Nice to meet you Mr President', Trump returned the compliment with the words 'We will have a terrific relationship, I have no doubt.'

Kim admitted that the path was not easy as past prejudices and practices worked as obstacles, which were successfully overcome by sustained diplomacy.

It was not known what exactly both discussed during their one-on-one meeting, though North Korea's denuclearisation was on the agenda.

Trump said his talks with Kim were 'better than anybody could imagine.'

From the lighter side, Kim remarked through an interpreter, 'Many people in the world will think of this as a form of fantasy from a science fiction movie', before heading for the airport after the signing ceremony.

From the available information at the time of writing, here is what transpired. Kim committed Pyongyang to 'work towards' the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in an agreement with Trump.

Both sides also agreed to recover the remains of prisoners of war from the conflict between North and South Korea, and the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

However, analysts expressed disappointment with the vague nature of the agreement, limited scope and the lack of specific details.

Robert Kelly, professor of political science at Pusan National University, felt the text is 'even thinner than most sceptics anticipated.' Kelly expected that Trump would bargain for and get at least some missiles or a site closure or something concrete.

Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis was also doubtful. He expressed disappointment how the joint statement from the 'epochal' Singapore summit stack up with other historic documents on denuclearisation.

According to him, nothing new emerged from the joint statement.

Chad O'Carroll of the Korea Risk Group decodes the text and raises two key points: How will Trump make 'security guarantees to the DPRK' genuinely credible, and that answer will impact the Kim roadmap to 'denuclearisation of the peninsula'.

Add to this two more points: Talk of 'mutual confidence-building' suggests a step-by-step process, meaning the Trump administration is flexible on prior insistence of CVID up-front and the DPRK and US will 'join efforts' to build lasting peace -- but no mention of getting it done before 2018, as per the April 27 agreement.

There was further lack of clarity. The term 'denuclearisation' remained unexplained as interpretation by either side has completely different meaning.

While for the US denuclearisation means North Korea dismantling its nuclear arsenal, for Pyongyang it means scaling down of US forces from both South Korea and Japan, besides ending the annual military drill between the US and South Korea.

Further, there was no mention of missiles, an issue that was brought to the fore in 2017.

Also, the text on MIA remains implies US military figures will visit North Korea. As contained in the joint text, the US and North Korea commit to recovering PoW/MIA remains including the immediate repatriation of those already identified. However, commitment to 'expeditious' implementation is good.

The most important of those four key points in the joint text is the third point in which both Trump and Kim 'commit to work towards the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula'.

Indeed, there is plenty of wriggle room in committing to work toward denuclearisation.

The joint text clearly mentions thus: 'President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his form and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.'

According to Jonathan Cheng of The Wall Street Journal, there are four key points in the Trump-Kim Declaration.

First: The US and North Korea commit to establish new US-North Korea relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.

Second: Both would make efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

Third: Reaffirming the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration, North Korea commits to work towards the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

And fourth: Both sides commit to recover PoW/MIA remains including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

China welcomed the summit as 'historic'. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi observed the fact that the two leaders 'can sit together and have equal talks has important and positive meaning, and is creating new history.'

Wang also spoke of the need for a peace mechanism for the peninsula. While calling for 'full denuclearisation' to resolve tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Wang observed: 'Resolving the nuclear issue, on the one hand, of course, is denuclearisation, full denuclearisation.'

'At the same time, there needs to be a peace mechanism for the peninsula, to resolve North Korea's reasonable security concerns.'

It needs to be remembered that Beijing is Pyongyang's sole major ally and main trading partner. However, it supported others in implementing a slew of UN sanctions to punish the North over its nuclear and missile tests.

Yet, Beijing welcomed Kim twice in quick succession prior to the latter's summit with Trump. That China continues to remain relevant in any peace process in the Korean Peninsula remains unquestioned.

Despite tensions, the Cold War-era allies sought to mend ties recently, and Kim even borrowed an Air China plane to travel to the landmark summit with Trump in Singapore.

Interestingly, while Trump ignored a question about whether he discussed with Kim Otto Warmbier, the American college student who was held in a North Korean labour camp, and died shortly after being flown back to the US, Kim did not reply when asked if he was willing to give up nuclear weapons.

Kim's silence on the nuclear question could be open to interpretation if Kim retracts his stance as was in the past.

Notwithstanding the much optimism that stems from the joint text, there could be always risk of decisions already taken being derailed.

What is significant to note is what seemed just unthinkable months ago could happen and ended with a positive note, at least for the time being.

The spectre of the growing nuclear threat that looked real some months ago has now receded.

In the run-up to the summit, Trump had indicated that he might strike a nuclear deal or forge a formal end to the Korean War in the course of a single meeting or over several days, but as it transpired, Trump departed Singapore soon after the meeting itself.

This raises questions if his aspirations for an ambitious outcome had been scaled back.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in was the most exuberant. Having laboured really hard for the summit to happen, he was pleased that it finally took place.

No wonder, he 'hardly slept' before the summit and watched the live broadcast of the summit with his cabinet colleagues at the Blue House.

When Trump and Kim took a stroll, critics were quick to ask if Trump was legitimising Kim on the world stage as an equal of the US President.

Trump was quick to respond to the critics, saying that missile launches have stopped for now.

His change in dynamics in Singapore from his earlier threats of 'fire and fury' against Kim and the latter's scorn at Trump as a 'mentally deranged US dotard' was a dramatic volte face.

The summit could shape the fate of the impoverished citizens of North Korea and tens of millions living in the shadow of the North's nuclear threat in South Korea, Japan and some parts of the US and elsewhere.

Kim seems to have been convinced on the security guarantees provided by the US as spelled out by American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who said the US was prepared to take action to provide North Korea with 'sufficient certainty' that denuclearisation 'is not something that ends badly for them.'

Though Pompeo did not clarify if that included the possibility of withdrawing US troops from the Korean Peninsula, he did say that the US was 'prepared to take what will be security assurances that are different, unique, than America has been willing to provide previously.'

The most significant statement made by Trump after the summit was that the US would halt military exercises with Seoul, something long sought by Pyongyang.

Trump further added that 'at some point' he wanted to withdraw US troops from the South.

This could have huge implication as it would imply abrogation of the security alliance between the US and South Korea and later Japan.

Japan and South Korea would be compelled to revisit their security postures if the reliance on the US for security protection comes under doubt.

It is here Trump and Pompeo need to coordinate and clarify what could be the real US policy in order that there is no scope for any confusion.

Despite the positive summit outcome, there is little possibility that sanctions will discontinue so soon until North Korea denuclearises. The US could even increase pressure if diplomatic discussions do not progress positively as expected.

Those who hold the view that Kim is unlikely to quickly give up his hard-won nukes could have merit.

Yet, the hope that diplomacy could replace animosity between the two nations cannot be dismissed either.

Optimists would see the Singapore summit as a trend-setter.

Dr Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow, IDSA, was until recently ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan.

Dr Rajaram Panda