After the Singapore summit pageantry, work still required

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At times, diplomacy can invoke more symbol than substance, and symbolism was on full display at the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore. But lacking was even the appearance of actions that could lead to a verifiable denuclearization agreement on the Korean Peninsula. If diplomacy is to be effective in the coming months, substance must now be front and center.

{mosads}Make no mistake, the symbolism of a handshake between the leaders of the United States and North Korea should not be understated. Nor should President Trump’s decision to choose diplomacy over military action be taken lightly, especially since the world has not forgotten his aggressive, blustering nuclear threats of “fire and fury” against North Korea that were spoken less than one year ago.


But any notion that this summit made substantive, concrete progress toward North Korean denuclearization must be dispelled. Clearly, the president’s pre-summit reality-TV mindset that denuclearization would be accomplished in one hour has now met diplomatic reality. It is a good thing that Trump and Kim met, and whether or not any rapport was established, that the meeting did not burst into acrimony.

It was also good that some statement of principles was put forth, yet the joint statement signed by President Trump and Kim Jong-un only broadly commits to four general actions that have been largely articulated in previous North Korean statements:

  1. New relations between both countries;
  2. An increased emphasis on a “stable peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula;
  3. A commitment “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”;
  4. A commitment to recovering the remains of soldiers imprisoned or missing during the Korean War ;

All four goals are worthwhile, but fall far short of any specific actions that will move toward actually improving the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s apparent claim that it would eliminate an engine testing facility is nowhere to be found in the statement, and this action may have already been taken in advance. At this point, negotiators have little to build upon beyond symbolic statements and gestures. Symbolism without substance is unsustainable for the long haul.

Even if nothing has changed on the ground, we can at least hope that the summit has diffused tensions enough that real diplomacy can take over. The goal moving forward must be more than handshakes and photo opportunities. At a minimum, they should include an extension of the freeze on North Korean nuclear and missile testing programs, with the goal of an eventual agreement to verifiably rollback North Korea’s capabilities. This will initially require a verifiable means of determining just what North Korea actually has by way of nuclear weapons, missiles, materials and facilities.

Allies must be fully included from the beginning. They were not consulted earlier when the president abruptly temporarily cancelled the summit and were apparently blindsided again when, during a press conference after the meeting, the president stated that joint military exercises will now be suspended — without any significant concession by North Korea. Continuing to ignore allies will make substantive progress extremely unlikely.

The threat of a catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula may be reduced for now, but we cannot be sanguine that it is eliminated. President Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, called for starting a conflict on the Korean Peninsula just a few months ago and was instrumental in derailing a previous diplomatic agreement with North Korea that had successfully constrained Pyongyang’s ability to produce plutonium.

There is concern that Bolton, who sat across the table from Kim Jong-un at the summit, is not only upset about the current course, but will work behind the scenes to actively undermine diplomatic progress moving forward. Even if purposely caused, any missed diplomatic opportunities will allow hawks within the administration to say that the North Koreans are unreliable and war is the only option left available — despite a likely death toll in the hundreds of thousands (assuming the conflict doesn’t go nuclear), which they seem willing to accept as “costs of war.”

Political pageantry, perhaps aimed only for domestic audiences, must now end. As we learned during the Iran nuclear negotiations, principled diplomacy took years of committed effort to produce the most robust and verifiable agreement.

Unfortunately, President Trump’s decision to withdraw from and actively violate the Iran Deal will be on the minds of the North Koreans. Given the fact that Iran was in compliance with its obligations under the deal and that many of the President’s reasons for withdraw had nothing to do with the actual parameters of the agreement, North Korean negotiators have some reason to be wary of any deals with the Trump administration. Reaching a deal with Pyongyang was always going to be difficult, and giving them a definitive reason to doubt our word is not the best way to start a diplomatic process.   

Nevertheless, the United States should push ahead and try to use the momentum from this modest and symbolic first step to further our progress on the long and difficult road of denuclearization.

The Trump-Kim Joint Statement did not, by any standard, lead to a “very comprehensive” agreement, as President Trump stated. Setting realistic expectations and goals will be critical in the months ahead. Doing otherwise could lead us to a recognizable failed diplomatic result, but this time with the chance of conflict higher than ever before.  

John F. Tierney is a former nine-term U.S. Congressman and current Executive Director of the Council for a Livable World. As a Democratic representative from Massachusetts, he was chairman of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee from 2006 to 2010.

Tags Donald Trump International relations Kim Jong-un North Korea North Korea–South Korea relations North Korea–United States relations North Korea–United States summit Politics

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