The Singapore summit — the beginning of an important journey

One year ago, possible conflict on the Korean Peninsula was a widespread concern. Today, there’s hope that agreements reached at the Singapore summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un will bring peace to the peninsula. Peace for the 75 million people living in South and North Korea. Peace that translates into significant economic and humanitarian advances in the North, and the removal of the cloud of potential conflict that has threatened the South for 65 years.

I’ve been involved with North Korea since 2003, with thousands of hours of negotiations and discussions with North Korean officials, and thousands of hours separately monitoring and analyzing their behavior. I was encouraged with the Sept. 19, 2005, Joint Statement that resulted from efforts of the Six Party Talks. But that was a North Korea with no nuclear weapons and limited missile capabilities.  

The situation changed in 2009, with the unraveling of the 2005 Joint Statement when North Korea refused to sign a verification regime that would have permitted international monitors to inspect non-declared suspected nuclear sites. Since then, and especially since 2012 after Kim Jong Un succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, North Korea has raced to build more nuclear weapons and missiles, some capable of reaching the United States.


Not surprisingly, this sprint happened when there was very limited official dialogue with North Korea.

What we know from years of dealing with North Korea is that it wants a normal relationship with the United States, while being accepted as a nuclear weapons state. Nuclear weapons have been its pursuit since Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, first approached China and then the Soviet Union for assistance with a nuclear weapons program.  

In my negotiations with North Koreans, I often was told that North Korea would be a good friend of the United States if only we could accept them as a nuclear weapons state. They were told then, as they are now, that the United States would never accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. They were told that normal relations with the United States would require complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of their nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons facilities.

Additionally, they were told that North Korea would have to make meaningful progress in resolving human rights and illicit activities issues before full diplomatic relations could be established.




It appears that the Trump administration has gleaned some important lessons from 25 years of failed negotiations with North Korea. Ignoring and refusing to talk to North Korea, while it conducts nuclear tests and missile launches, doesn’t make the situation any better. Indeed, confronting North Korea and making it clear that nuclear and missile escalation will not be tolerated, imposing crushing sanctions and conducting intimidating joint military exercises, sends a powerful message to the North. Concurrently, being open to dialogue and providing an off-ramp to defuse tension also has value.  

The preliminary meetings that Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoRussia suggests military deployments to Cuba, Venezuela an option The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Winter is here for Democrats Overnight Defense & National Security — Nuclear states say no winners in global war MORE had with Chairman Kim Jong Un and Vice Chairman Kim Yong Chol no doubt permitted Kim Jong Un to better understand U.S. policy toward North Korea, and the importance of complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. This message apparently was conveyed to Kim during his two meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his two meetings with China’s President Xi Jinping. All of this was reinforced when Vice Chairman Kim Yong Chol met with President TrumpDonald TrumpClyburn says he's worried about losing House, 'losing this democracy' Sinema reignites 2024 primary chatter amid filibuster fight  Why not a Manchin-DeSantis ticket for 2024? MORE in Washington.

The Singapore summit was a unique opportunity for Kim Jong Un to hear from President Trump that North Korea can have a normal relationship with the United States, with security assurances, contingent on the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the North’s nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons facilities, and progress on resolving issues dealing with human rights and illicit activities. The resultant Joint Statement commits North Korea to “complete denuclearization” with the prospect of establishing a new U.S.-North Korea relationship.  

Kim Jong Un wants normal relations with the United States, a relationship that will give North Korea access to international financial institutions and needed foreign direct investment. I believe Kim, a young man who studied in Switzerland and knows how dire the economic situation is in North Korea, made the strategic decision to now focus on economic development in the North in order to provide a better life for the people.

Secretary of State Pompeo now has the lead for follow-on negotiations and implementation of the Joint Statement. The secretary, from his work at the CIA and his meetings in Pyongyang with Chairman Kim Jong Un and Vice Chairman Kim Yong Chol, knows the issues and the importance of a robust verification regime that ensures that North Korea is in compliance with its commitment to completely denuclearize.

Given the scope and complexity of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement will be challenging, requiring hard work, patience and perseverance.  

We are now entering into a new relationship with North Korea. Hopefully, this new relationship will finally bring peace to the Korean Peninsula.

Ambassador Joseph R. DeTrani was the State Department’s former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea from 2003 to 2006. He directed the National Counterproliferation Center in 2010 and was a special adviser to the director of national intelligence. He served more than two decades with the CIA and as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service. The views are the author’s and not those of any government department or agency.