U.S.-North Korea

Writing a new history

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with U.S. President Donald Trump at the conclusion of their meetings at Sentosa Island, Singapore on June 12. Photo: Susan Walsh/AP

Kim Yong-chol (left), North Korea’s top nuclear arms negotiator, with President Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the White House on June 1. Photo: Tom Brenner/NYT

Kim Jong-un with South Korean President Moon Jae-in after signing a joint statement at Panmunjom, South Korea on April 27. Korea Summit Press Pool via AP. Photo: AP

A satellite image of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Photo: Digital globe/Reuters

If the Singapore summit witnessed a historic agreement on the “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula, it also showed that Pyongyang will not easily negotiate its strategic autonomy away.

IT was taken for granted that some sort of a deal would be signed at the Singapore summit after United States President Donald Trump finally agreed to travel to the island nation to meet with Chairman Kim Jong-un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The spadework for the deal, it seems, was already done, much of it apparently crafted in Seoul. When Trump impetuously called off the summit meeting in early May, only to backtrack a few days later, it was Seoul which undertook much of the firefighting. The South Koreans used their diplomatic backchannels to get the talks back on track. All the while, the diplomatically astute South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, was careful to stay out of the limelight while giving most of the credit to the U.S. President for agreeing to the summit meeting.

The agreement signed on June 12 by Trump and Kim Jong-un, after their meeting in Singapore, envisages the “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula. The agreement can be described as “historic” as it was the first such document signed by a U.S. President and a leader of North Korea. The first point of the agreement talks about the desire of the two countries to start a new chapter in bilateral relations. “The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desires of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity,” the statement reads. There were prior attempts made to work towards a nuclear-free and peaceful Korean peninsula after the early 1990s. Pyongyang had given many concessions in the past, too, but reneged on them after Washington, abetted by the conservative governments that were in power in Seoul for long periods of time, went back on many of its key commitments.

'Complete denuclearisation'

Before coming to Singapore, Trump’s negotiation team, led by his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, claimed that only a pledge of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation by Pyongyang would result in a successful summit. President Trump had even threatened to walk out of the talks if North Korea did not accede to the U.S.’ main demand. However, the final document that was signed only talks of “complete denuclearisation” in the Korean peninsula. There is no mention of North Korea being made to submit to verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation. On the contrary, the North Koreans got a commitment from Washington that it would halt, for the time being, the massive military exercises it regularly conducts on the Korean peninsula. The halting of these exercises has been a long-standing demand of the North Koreans. Pyongyang has said that this would be the first step towards forging a lasting solution for the conflict on the Korean peninsula. Earlier in the year, as an apparent concession to the U.S., North Korea stopped demanding the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the peninsula.

If the joint statement released after the Trump-Kim summit is any indication, there seems to have been more give than take from the U.S. side. Kim seems to have mastered the “art of the deal” better. His country has only committed to a long-term plan for achieving the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and avoided falling into the trap of the CVID (complete verification, inspection and destruction) of nuclear weapons that senior members of the Trump administration such as Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton would have preferred. Bolton had, in fact, infuriated the North Koreans by demanding that Pyongyang follow the example of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and voluntarily give up its nuclear arsenal and bomb-making capacities. Washington, until recently, had also demanded that Pyongyang give up its formidable missile capacity. The fate that befell Gaddafi and Libya after he succumbed to the pressure exerted by the West is a parable for other leaders and countries standing up to the unjust diktats of the West.

Chairman Kim was successful in persuading the Americans to give up on their core demand and instead settle for a “phased and synchronous” approach to achieve the eventual goal of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. This strategy is meant to guarantee that the international community compensates North Korea in gradual ways as it takes important step-by-step measures to denuclearise. Before the Singapore talks began, North Korea had destroyed its only nuclear testing facility in the presence of the international media and also committed to not testing its long-range intercontinental nuclear-capable missiles. Now the DPRK government wants the international community to lift some of its most draconian sanctions, especially those relating to the import of food and medicine and the export of coal and fish. North Korea has been experiencing perhaps the toughest sanctions the world has witnessed so far. Even China, its biggest trading partner and ally, has turned the screws on. Trump has not given any timeline for the lifting of sanctions, but the North Koreans seem to be confident that countries such as China and their compatriots in the South will adopt a lenient approach.

Kim's diplomacy

Donald Trump’s showmanship was more than matched by Kim’s diplomatic astuteness in Singapore. Kim, who has only travelled outside his country twice after taking over the leadership position following his father’s death in 2012, was an unknown quantity until recently. He was largely a figure of caricature in the Western media. But his meeting with his South Korean counterpart earlier this year, and his subsequent travels to China to consult with President Xi Jinping, have turned the reclusive leader of the hermit kingdom into an international figure. According to the media reports from Singapore, he stole the diplomatic thunder from Trump. Kim took a walkabout in Singapore where he was warmly greeted by ordinary people. In the one-on-one talks with the U.S. President, he is reported to have held his own. Kim gave a polite hearing to the U.S. President as he hectored him about the immediate benefits North Korea would get if it agreed to the U.S. proposal of CVID. Before coming to Singapore, senior Trump officials had said that CVID was a non-negotiable demand that Pyongyang had to accept for an agreement to be reached.

Kim had taken an experienced negotiating team along with him, which comprised the former intelligence chief, Kim Yong-chol, the Foreign Minister, Ri Yong-ho, and the vice chairman of the ruling Korea Workers Party, Ri Su-yong, for the talks in Singapore. Trump’s negotiating team consisted of Pompeo, the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and Bolton. At the end of the discussions which lasted more than three hours, Kim expressed his “gratitude” to Trump for making the summit a success. “We are signing a document where we get to move on from the past and mark a new start at this historic meeting,” Kim said just before the two leaders initialled the agreement. The official North Korean media said that their government was happy with the outcome of the meeting, stating that the two sides had agreed to take “step by step and simultaneous” actions.

After the signing of the joint statement, President Trump wasted no time in claiming that North Korea no longer posed a nuclear threat to his country and that he had achieved what his predecessor Barack Obama had miserably failed to do. He described the summit meeting as successful because it had led to reduced tensions on the Korean peninsula. Trump said that the North Korean leader seemed genuine in his desire to avoid a military confrontation with the U.S. According to the U.S. President, the North Korean leader, in the course of their discussions, offered to unilaterally dismantle an important military facility that test-fires the country’s ballistic missiles. Justifying his decision to suspend military exercises on the Korean peninsula, he said that the “war games” were needlessly provocative to North Korea. Trump also said that they were very expensive and that he was committed to fulfilling his campaign promise of bringing U.S. troops back home. South Korea hosts one of the biggest U.S. military bases in the region.

The summit and the deal that was ultimately negotiated would have been impossible but for the tremendous diplomatic efforts put in by President Moon Jae-in since the beginning of the year. Until the end of last year, Washington and Pyongyang were hurling insults and threats of unleashing a nuclear war. The U.S. President, in his speech at the United Nations last year, insultingly referred to the North Korean leader as a “little rocket man” who was “out on a suicide mission for himself and his regime” and had threatened to “totally destroy” his country in a way the world had never seen before. The North Korean leader had responded with his own set of insults, including a description of the U.S. President as “a mentally deranged American dotard” who would be tamed.

South Korean mediation

However, things moved at a rapid pace after the rapprochement process between North Korea and South Korea restarted in earnest in early 2018. After a gap of more than seven years, South Korea had a centre-left government. President Moon, on taking office, had pledged to reinstate the “sunshine policy” that was started by President Kim Dae-jung in 1998. That policy had considerably defused tensions on the Korean peninsula. The leaders of North Korea and South Korea had met for the first time in the year 2000. The U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, had visited Pyongyang the same year. There was talk of a summit meeting between President Bill Clinton and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. But Clinton, then nearing the end of his term, passed up the opportunity. From the outset, the North Korean leadership was clear that only direct talks with the U.S. would end the political and military stalemate in the Korean peninsula. Kim Jong-il had sent his personal envoy, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, to Washington in October 2000 to talk to the Clinton administration. North Korea had proposed four-party talks for formally ending the Korean conflict and the replacement of the 1953 Korean War armistice with “permanent peace arrangements”.

The Singapore joint statement is conspicuously silent on this key issue. Trump even said that the topic of a peace treaty with North Korea did not even come up for discussions. In a joint statement issued after the six-party talks in 2007, North Korea had “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning at an early date to the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards”. But after that agreement collapsed, Pyongyang accelerated its nuclear and missile defence programme. North Korea has obviously come a long way since then as far as its prowess in nuclear and missile technologies is concerned. The outcome of the Singapore summit showed that Pyongyang had many cards to play and would not easily negotiate its strategic autonomy away.

The election of George W. Bush to the presidency in 2000 put paid to the plans for a comprehensive peace in the Korean peninsula that was attempted by the Clinton administration. After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration imperiously put North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, in the so-called “axis of evil”. The neoconservatives in power in Washington got support from Seoul for their extremely hawkish stance after the election of a right-wing government in South Korea. The “sunshine policy” was reversed and replaced by policies that were reminiscent of those implemented when the Cold War was at its height.

The leadership in North Korea was driven into a corner. Pyongyang’s repeated appeals for restarting the dialogue process were rebuffed until the fag end of the Bush administration. There were misplaced hopes in some Western capitals that the young Kim, who took over the leadership when he was in his late twenties, would be a pushover and regime change in Pyongyang would soon become a reality. But as the fast-paced events of the last six months show, Chairman Kim has more than held his own in the face of overwhelming odds. After more than 65 years, there is finally some light visible at the end of the long dark tunnel in the Korean peninsula.

Trump faces flak

Trump, meanwhile, has come in for criticism domestically after the Singapore summit meeting. He has been accused of making unilateral concessions to North Korea. Trump’s decision to stop “war games” on the Korean peninsula has come in for particular criticism that it has let down the U.S.’ close allies in the region. The current South Korean government will not be too perturbed by this development. President Moon will be happy with a reduction in the presence of American troops in his country. He had protested when America installed the Thaad anti-missile system on Korean soil. Locating the sophisticated system on Korean soil had riled China and Russia.

Only the right-wing government in Japan seems to be perturbed by Trump’s decision to stop the military exercises. “Joint drills with U.S. forces in South Korea play an important role in East Asia’s security,” Japan’s Defence Minister, Itsunori Onadera, said after Trump made his announcement on the suspension of military exercises on the Korean peninsula. Despite requests from Tokyo, Trump had refused to prioritise human rights issues during his talks with Kim. Japan has been demanding the return of a few of its citizens who it claims were kidnapped by North Korean agents. The Shinzo Abe government also fears that the Trump administration will completely give up on Obama’s military pivot to the East. Trump on many occasions questioned the logic of the costly U.S. military presence in East Asia. Speaking after his meeting with the North Korean leader, Trump said he would “love to get the military out as soon as we can as it costs a lot of money”. Trump, however, clarified that U.S. troop withdrawal was not on the agenda for discussion at the Singapore summit.

China, too, had suggested that a suspension of the U.S. military’s “war games” would be a well-timed goodwill gesture towards North Korea and that it would encourage the government there to freeze its nuclear and missile programme. Talking to the media after the summit, Secretary of State Pompeo said that he expected “major disarmament” by the North within the next two and a half years. At the same time, he insisted that Pyongyang had committed itself to international inspection to confirm “complete denuclearisation”, though there was no evidence of such a commitment in the joint statement released in Singapore. The 2007 six-party agreement had collapsed after the U.S. demanded additional and intrusive verification measures. Iran has warned North Korea about the dangers of dealing with the Trump administration. “We don’t know what kind of a person the North Korean leader is negotiating with,” a spokesman for the Iranian government said. He questioned the credibility of President Trump. “This man does not represent the American people and they will surely distance themselves from him in the next election.”

Denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula means different things to Washington and Pyongyang. North Korea, supported by China, wants a steep reduction of the U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula. Washington’s priority, on the other hand, is the immediate dismantling of the North Korean nuclear and missile arsenal. Speaking from Seoul, the South Korean President issued a cautionary warning to all the sides. President Moon emphasised: “Even after the two leaders have initiated dialogue in a big way, we may need a long process that may take one year, two years or even longer to completely resolve the issues concerned.” Welcoming the outcome of the Singapore summit, President Moon pledged to write a “new history” with North Korea, leaving behind the “dark days of conflict”.

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