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The Trump-Kim summit advances a unique rapprochement

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As Washington digests the results of the Singapore summit, it is clear that the meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump represents the beginning of a different sort of diplomatic process. It also may signal a different approach to U.S. thinking about security in Northeast Asia.

Many critics have noted that the summit’s joint statement is light on detail. Notably, it glosses over any details about North Korean denuclearization. Despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments about complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization — or  CVID — just days ago, there is no mention of such a process in the joint statement. President Trump is sure to take a great deal of heat from both Democrats and Republicans for this omission. However, ultimately this ambiguity may hold the key to the deal’s success.

{mosads}The process introduced in Singapore opens the door to an undefined and extended denuclearization process. The White House increasingly has been leaning toward an extended process ever since national security adviser John Bolton’s “Libya model” gaffe last month. North Korea’s sharp rebuke of that concept appears to have conveyed to the Trump administration that Pyongyang would not accede to denuclearization without receiving security guarantees in return.


The joint statement’s vagueness allows for future interpretation (and reinterpretation) of how to denuclearize in the context of an evolving U.S.-North Korea relationship. This flexibility can work in both parties’ favor if they are to avoid the pitfalls that have beleaguered previous diplomatic attempts to address North Korea’s nuclear program. The absence of a detailed plan may be a sign that U.S. expectations are being tempered by reality.

The hard truth — which even the White House is unlikely to admit — is that CVID is impossible. North Korea has been building underground facilities since the 1950s for the express purpose of hiding its most valuable strategic and military assets. Pyongyang also has had decades to fabricate, lose, or otherwise alter materials related to its nuclear program. Most observers do not believe that North Korea ultimately will abandon its entire nuclear program. Yet, even if it did — and if it allowed unfettered verification — some in Washington would harbor doubts. In an atmosphere of persistent mistrust, even small doubts have the ability to bog down and completely derail the process.

More important than CVID is lowering tensions on the Korean Peninsula and building the trust that ensures that North Korea will never choose to use nuclear weapons — or be put in the position where it feel it has to use them. Today, North Korea has every reason to engage with South Korea, the United States and the world. In fact, Kim Jong Un’s policy since coming to power has led him to this point. The future stability of the region requires that the momentum continue.

Rather than mandating a precise road to denuclearization, the Singapore statement, in conjunction with Trump’s remarks, emphasizes a resetting of the U.S.-North Korea relationship through a process of building confidence. By promoting an atmosphere of engagement, Washington and Pyongyang may be able to avoid insurmountable obstacles to the denuclearization process. By not committing either side to anything up front, Washington and Pyongyang may be able to be more flexible and to find creative opportunities to move ahead if a disagreement emerges.

The absence of a transparent path ahead does create anxiety, however. An immediate example is Trump’s apparently off-hand comment that the United States would end its “war games” with South Korea. The problem here is that “war games” is an imprecise term; the United States and South Korea conduct a great number of joint military exercises throughout the year and, when pressed, Trump offered little insight into what exactly he meant by his comment.

It is true that Pyongyang sees some of these as provocative and hostile actions, and there is certainly room to discuss alterations to the current exercise schedule with our South Korean partners. The immediate cancellation of all military exercises or engagement with the South Koreans would be inappropriate. That is probably not what Trump means, and not what Kim would demand, yet those of us on the outside do not know for sure.

We do know, however, that in the immediate future, there should be little reason to worry about the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Trump expressly stated that there will be no immediate drawdown of U.S. forces. Also, the sole detail about North Korean denuclearization to come out of Singapore referred back to the Panmunjom Declaration; in essence, this puts South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in back in the pole position of engagement with North Korea, another sign of the intention to depressurize — not just denuclearize — the peninsula.

The greatest opportunity to come out of the Singapore meeting is the potential to reshape the security dynamics of Northeast Asia. Across Asia, smaller states see China as a regional hegemon and are looking to balance their interests against those of their much larger neighbor. If the United States truly wants to compete with China as a peer, we will need to look at North Korea not as a nuclear adversary but as a small state that is looking to be less economically dependent on China. We should not overlook this opportunity to extend U.S. influence to North Korea, a country that traditionally has been as close to China “as lips and teeth.” North Korea is not going to jump into our alliance network anytime soon, but the Singapore summit may give it the opportunity to move out of China’s orbit.

The rapprochement between the United States and North Korea in recent months has been as dramatic as it has been unconventional. As this process moves forward, it will not look like other diplomatic openings. The lack of published details means that the success of this process will hinge on the continued engagement of Trump and Kim. And, given the mercurial atmosphere of Washington politics these days, maintaining leader engagement may be the most difficult challenge.

Christopher Steinitz focuses on adversary analytics and strategic and operational naval issues at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), a federally funded R&D center for the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps. His specialties include North Korea, the Middle East, Iran and jihadist groups. He previously worked at the Terrorism Research Center and as an Arabic media analyst at the State Department.

Tags Donald Trump East Asia Kim Jong-un Mike Pompeo North Korea–United States relations North Korea–United States summit

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