The Singapore Summit: Little More than Theatrics
June 19, 2018 | The optics could not be more striking. As U.S. president Donald Trump departed Singapore after his summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he showered the man he once derided as the “Little Rocket Man” with praise. Describing him as “a very talented man” that “loves his country very much,” the US president added in a separate interview that Kim Jong Un’s “country does love him” and that North Koreans “have a great fervor” for him. Consider the remarks Donald Trump made on his way to Singapore from a cantankerous G7 summit, calling the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau “weak” and “dishonest.”
Giving the president the benefit of the doubt and assuming that he knows fully well that Kim Jong Un’s “talents” have been most strikingly expressed by killing some of his closest family members, compelling his countrymen to have a great fervor for him by sending many of them to gulags, and finally presuming that Donald Trump’s rhetoric is part of a negotiating strategy, what can we take away from the Singapore summit?
In the most immediate sense, talking is better than war. Even if the summit meeting were to eventually come to a naught, it helps to diffuse a very tense situation that could easily lead to a destructive war that would likely cost hundreds of thousands of lives, however preventive it could be thought of during the planning stage. Even if one does not believe in the magic of personal diplomacy, exchanging positions through one-on-one dialog is preferable to early-morning Twitter posts, which, one might underscore, cannot possibly capture the complicated nature of the issue at hand.
On the other hand, the realistic expectation still very much remains that North Korea will not give up its nuclear arsenal, even if it were to halt testing and further escalation, as it has done in recent months. It is not so much that the summit statement that both leaders signed is exceptionally vague—this is to be expected. The reason to remain skeptical is that there are very few good reasons why the North Korean regime would go from firing a missile every couple of months to committing to giving up weapons it spent years developing within a few months. One possible answer is of course that the international sanctions that Pyongyang has to face have started to bite to such an extent that a complete reversal of course was necessary. Another theory is that China finally put sufficient pressure on Kim Jong Un to force de-escalation. The reason to doubt both explanations is, once again, the speed with which the North Korean leader went from the “Little Rocket Man” to “a very talented man.” Although new sanctions have increased pressure, North Korea has lived in international isolation for decades. While Beijing may think it is time to de-escalate, it is unlikely that it would manage to reverse Pyongyang’s policy with such superluminal speed.
A more plausible explanation is that the North’s de-escalation is a strategic, carefully calculated step that began with Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech, continued with North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics, and culminated with the Singapore summit. The reason that North Korea started de-escalating when it did is that by the end of 2017, it had probably achieved what it wanted most: a nuclear-capable inter-continental ballistic missile. Knowing fully well that merely agreeing to stop testing—which would no longer be necessary if an important armament goal was already reached—and talk would lessen the danger of a preventive war, cause the U.S.-led alliance to incur important costs, and make further ratcheting up of sanctions difficult, it made sense to start traveling on the path to Singapore. One piece of evidence which suggests that North Korea does not in fact want to reach a deal on its denuclearization is that its willingness to come to Singapore changed little after the U.S. scrapped the Iran deal. That action would give pause to anyone hoping to reach a similar agreement and yet the North, from what we know, did not seem rattled by Tehran’s experience.
To say that the Singapore summit was a mistake would be to offer cheap criticism at a time when any effort to avert war is worth trying. But such a summit should be the capstone of long negotiations, not the beginning of such process. Donald Trump’s confidence in his ability to force change by his presence and words alone partially explains why the Singapore summit came so early. And yet, past experience with the North Korean regime shows that words alone will not produce results. They will however, produce costs on the part of the U.S.-led alliance. Agreeing to suspend “provocative” military exercises with South Korea, Donald Trump not only adopted the North’s propaganda-driven vocabulary, but he also added another crack in the alliances the U.S. hopes to maintain with its East-Asian allies.
It is possible that in a few years’ time, we will look back at the Singapore summit as the start of a drawn-out denuclearization process. Given the above analysis, however, such an outcome would be surprising indeed.
Vladimir Chlouba is a PhD student of political science at the Ohio State University.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.
Photo by Dan Scavino Jr., subject to public domain via the U.S. federal government.