Rarely has a high-profiled international event come with the caveat “assuming it actually happens” in every news report, but with the summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, journalists writing about it had to throw the phrase in because until the moment of the handshake, nothing seemed certain.
In the coming few hours, so much will be written about what the summit means, and every little motion by the two leaders will be interpreted in detail. Suffice to say, at the moment, that the summit itself actually took place was the most significant event. At best, it was only going to be the potential start of a longer dialogue and process, and that is precisely what it was.
That being said, the lack of commitments by North Korea to at all starting a denuclearization process—held up by the Trump administration prior to the summit as the most important goal—is somewhat surprising. Not that everything was likely to happen all at once, but for a president who has pushed so hard for an expedient process, the lack of a concrete start is somewhat remarkable. North Korea, according to Trump’s later statements, will destroy a missile engine test site. Compared with the decision by the U.S. and South Korea to pause military exercises, this concession is fairly modest. If we’re looking for a winner in the details, for now, that appears to be North Korea—although the U.S. didn’t commit to any sanctions relief as of yet. Overall, the declaration signed by the two, as well as any other agreements, skipped the difficult question. The declaration expressed commitments by the U.S. to provide “security guarantees to the DPRK,” and North Korea’s commitment to “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” in vague terms. What these two things actually mean is the key question for the process going forward, and their declaration and meeting didn’t bring much clarity.
At this stage, that may not be that much of a problem. After all, North Korea didn’t get any concrete promises on sanctions relief either, so both had to sacrifice two core goals for now. Again, North Korea may have come out with the upper hand from the summit, and the fact that “denuclearization” still couldn’t be defined may pose problems as the two countries move forward in the process. Still, the fact that the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea have met and signed a piece of paper is alone remarkable. A year ago, few would have bet that we would see the day and that we’d see it so soon. At that time, the threat of nuclear war was there. For now, it’s been removed, though things may well get reversed should the parties fail to agree on key provisions in the coming months. All the same, as the modest but at the same time monumental start of a longer process, which the declaration also stated, the summit was a success.
Much will be written in the coming few days about the road ahead for relations between the two countries. As of now, a likely scenario may be the following: more high-level meetings, with some form of a plan, at best, for North Korea’s complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID), and for North Korea, sanctions relief. So-called CVID is still highly unlikely, but North Korea may take some meaningful steps along the way. Trump wants things to move fast, but the fact that nothing was truly agreed on in Singapore indicates that he’s tempered his expectations.
A key question is at what stages the U.S. will be willing to let up on the sanctions pressure. Thus far, the Trump administration has said that sanctions relief will only come with complete denuclearization by North Korea. It’s a stance that will be difficult for them to keep up. In a process so long and bumpy, the U.S. will have to at least give up something regarding sanctions for North Korea to go along. And the U.S. may come under pressure from both China and South Korea to let up the economic pressure on North Korea, and open up for resumed trade, and for South Korea to engage in economic cooperation projects with the North. China may well begin to ease its sanctions implementation fairly soon, given that tensions have eased already. Only time will tell.
One of the most interesting aspects of the summit is Kim Jong-un’s visit to Singapore itself, and the way North Korean media covered it. Rodong Sinmun, the state newspaper, ran a front page on the day of the summit with pictures of Kim Jong-un strolling around Singapore and being greeted by the crowds like a world-star, while gazing out over the glittering skyline. Kim Jong-un has become the most globally present of North Korea’s leaders. Rodong Sinmun isn’t at all far from the truth when they depict Kim as the leader at the center of the universe because, well, at the moment, he is. This imagery is somewhat reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s when North Korea strove to show Kim Il-sung as a global leader and ideological pioneer, with the whole world—not least the decolonized one—following his Juche ideology of self-reliance. Kim Jong-il mostly stayed at home, and only travelled to China and Russia in his capacity as North Korea’s leader. Political rule in North Korea may be more about the institution of the one-man leader than the leader himself, but clearly, Kim Jong-un is ready and willing to engage much more globally, and perhaps due to his age and experience in foreign countries, is more comfortable outside his home grounds.
Not least, Kim is the man who brought North Korea a nuclear deterrent with the capacity to strike the United States. This gives him cause for confidence. Perhaps, this time is in fact different because North Korea is. In 2018, the markets and (semi-)private sector have such a prominent place in the system that further economic reforms would in large part be a continuation of a process that’s already well underway. North Korea now negotiates from a position of strength and confidence in the military realm. That may make it more reliable and trustworthy in the coming process, though there’s no reason as of yet to be confident. We should have no expectations that it will truly carry out a full denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but in other ways, this time might actually be different.
Indeed, in Singapore, Kim admired the lit skyline, a clear symbol of prosperity, and said—in comments printed on Rodong’s first page—that he would take important lessons with him back to North Korea. The fact that Rodong printed pictures of the Singapore skyline, showing material standards clearly better than those in North Korea, may not be all that dramatic. They don’t show any truly monumental difference from pictures of newly renovated and well-lit Pyongyang neighborhoods. Moreover, North Korean leaders have said similar things following foreign visits. Still, the shape and form of North Korea’s media reports here are somewhat unusual in how prominently they feature the staggering wealth of a much richer country, and Kim’s expressed willingness to learn from it. Authoritarian, dynastic, and wealthy Singapore may, in many ways, be a more appealing model than China, given the historical animosity between North Korea and the latter.
At this time of writing, we’re still awaiting details on what “denuclearization” and “security guarantees” actually mean. Whatever happens, we’re in for a rocky and long-winding road.