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The Peninsula

Assessing the Singapore Summit One Year Later

Published June 6, 2019
Author: Robert King
Category: North Korea

By Robert R. King

One year ago on June 12, 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met in a historic summit in Singapore.  Unlike most of Trump’s other “historic” claims, the Singapore summit actually was a historic first.  It was the first time ever that a sitting President of the United States met with the leader of North Korea.

The meeting certainly was “historic” in that it was the very first time ever that a U.S. President while in office met with the North Korean leader.  But the question is was it “historic” in the sense of having great and lasting importance; was it momentous, consequential, or groundbreaking?  Are we talking about a real turning point or is this simply a bragging point?  At this point in time, any assessment of the summit is premature, but it is useful to assess the event one year later.

The Outcome of Singapore and the Joint Statement

Both President Trump and Kim Jong-un claimed the Singapore meeting was a great success.  Trump returned to the United States touting his diplomatic prowess with an announcement via Twitter, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat” from Pyongyang.  North Korean news media gave Chairman Kim the usual effusive praise for his brilliant diplomacy and glorious success upon his return from Singapore.

In fact, the results of Singapore were limited.  One of the highlights was an American-produced video touting North Korea’s economic and development potential.  It was the type of message that looked like it was produced by the North Korean propaganda machine.  The video suggested that North Korea had vast economic potential, with the subtext that the United States could help unlock that promise.  It was sufficiently pro-North Korean that it was shown without edits on North Korean television, and a number of Americans who saw the video without knowing its origins, thought it was in fact produced by the North.

The highlight of Singapore was a Joint Statement signed with much fanfare and pomp.  The statement’s rhetoric was positive on the thorny issue of denuclearization, and promises were made about the potential and desire for significantly improved relations between the two countries.  The agreement, however, listed vague commitments to achieve broad goals but no concrete, specific actions were agreed upon by either side.  The entire text is brief, consisting of only a few short paragraphs.

Status of Diplomatic Engagement

In the Joint Agreement, the two countries committed to “new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.”  This first of the four numbered points in the Statement involved a willingness to engage diplomatically, something the North Koreans had been unwilling to do earlier.

During the first eight months since Singapore, a series of important senior level meetings have taken place.  In October 2018 (four months after Singapore) U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo met in Pyongyang with Kim Jong-un and other North Korean officials.  Agreement was reached that a second summit should take place “as soon as possible.”  In January, former North Korean intelligence chief and currently senior deputy to Kim Jong-un, Kim Yong-chol, visited Washington, where he met in the Oval Office with President Trump and with other senior U.S. government officials.  Kim Yong-chol had been designated to be North Korea’s counterpart to Secretary of State Pompeo on issues involving the United States.

During this same time period, U.S. Senior Representative for North Korea Policy at the Department of State, Steve Biegun, held a number of other meetings with his North Korean counterparts in Pyongyang, Stockholm, and elsewhere.  The major achievement of these meetings was to agree upon a second summit to be held in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 2019.

This period of diplomatic engagement was short lived.  The follow-on summit held eight held months after Singapore in February 2019 collapsed abruptly without any progress or agreement on any issues, and both leaders departed Vietnam earlier than planned.  Since the failure of Hanoi, North Korean government officials have shown little willingness to engage with their American counterparts.  U.S. diplomats have reached out, but there has been no response.

There was one curious press comment from the North that could well have been a wink and a nod to President Trump, however.  Pyongyang news media condemned criticism of North Korea by former Vice President Joe Biden, but the critical language used clearly echoed Trump.  Biden was criticized as “a fool of low IQ.”  Strange as this may seem, it may well be a subtle hint that Chairman Kim is still interested in engagement.

Another cloud over diplomatic engagement was the disappearance of Kim Yong-chol, North Korean counterpart of Secretary of State Pompeo, and Kim Hyok-chol, counterpart of U.S. Representative for North Korea Policy, Steve Biegun.  The disappearance, and now the reappearance of Kim Hyok-chol, raises questions about the prospects for serious future engagement.  Kim Hyok-chol has still not been seen in public, but “sources” say his is alive.

Korean Peninsula “Peace Regime” and Denuclearization

Point two of the Joint Agreement called for the U.S. and the North to “build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”  Action thus far on this point has been limited and unilateral by the United States.  In Singapore, President Trump announced that he was unilaterally ending large-scale joint military exercises involving U.S. and South Korean troops.  The action was taken without advance consultation with the South Korean government, and the North Koreans were apparently not asked and thus far have not ended or altered their own regular large-scale military exercises.

This termination of military exercises has been further codified by an announcement just a few days after the failed Hanoi Summit that the U.S. was permanently ending the major U.S.-South Korea spring training exercises “Foal Eagle” and “Key Resolve,” though these large-scale exercises will eventually be replaced by smaller exercises tailored to specific missions.

In contrast, Kim Jong-un engaged in sabre rattling.  He conducted a series of missile test launches in early May in defiance of his moratorium on test launches—and this came after the United States announced permanent ending of large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea following the Hanoi Summit failure.  President Trump has sought to play down the missile testing, tweeting from Tokyo “North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me.”  Those “disturbed” included the Prime Minister of Japan, Secretary of State Pompeo, and his national Security Advisor John Bolton.

The third point of the Joint Statement signed in Singapore commits the two countries “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”  Since Singapore, the U.S. and North Korea have made little or no progress on denuclearization.  At the Hanoi summit, Kim Jong-un apparently was intransigent in his offer to make only limited concessions on denuclearization.  He was willing to close the Yongbyan nuclear facility, but no other nuclear facilities, in return for the U.S. working to lift UN economic sanctions against the North.

There were differences as to what sanctions were to be lifted.  At his press conference after the summit ended early, Trump said “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety and we couldn’t do that.”  North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong-ho said the North sought only “partial relief from sanctions” that hurt “people’s livelihoods.”  Nevertheless, those sanctions are the key UN sanctions that have had the most impact.

One year after the Singapore Summit, the commitment to establish a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and move to complete denuclearization of the Peninsula has made little progress.  There was some progress in diplomatic engagement—the two sides were talking.  Now, however, even engagement seems to have dwindled.  The Singapore Summit represents more a hopeful wish than a fundamental shift in the policies or attitudes on either side.  The failure of the Hanoi Summit eight months later to make any progress on the tradeoffs between denuclearization and lifting sanctions is a serious, though not yet a fatal blow.

One Brief Bright Spot—Remains Recovery

The very brief positive exception to the results thus far of the Singapore Summit is the commitment made in point 4 of the Singapore Joint Statement.  Both countries agreed to cooperate in recovering POW/MIA remains from the Korean War.  This has been an important issue for Washington.  For decades, the U.S. military has sought to recover remains of soldiers who fought and died in the Korean War.  During brief periods of improved relations in the past, a few U.S. recovery missions have been permitted to seek remains of U.S. servicemen in North Korea.

In July 2018 just two months after the Singapore Summit and consistent with the Joint Statement, North Korea handed over 55 sets of American military remains from the Korean War era.  Over the last year, a number of those 55 have been identified and the remains have been reinterred with appropriate military honors, and this has given family members an opportunity to find closure.

It is now one full year since the Joint Statement was signed and eleven months since the one group of remains were handed over.  Despite U.S. military efforts to engage with North Korean counterparts to arrange for additional recovery missions to North Korea, no positive steps have emerged.  After the failure of the Hanoi Summit earlier this year, U.S. military officials report that North Korean People’s Army officials stopped all communication.  The Pentagon has abandoned the effort to organize joint recovery operations with the North until conditions change.  The Pentagon estimates that some 7,800 U.S. soldiers remain unidentified and unaccounted for in North Korea.  This issue is a matter of great importance to the United States government, which remains committed to bringing home the remains of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

For Pyongyang, on the other hand, this issue is simply one that gives it leverage with Washington.  Within a matter of weeks of the Singapore Summit, the 55 sets of remains were transferred.  These were probably remains that had been discovered, collected, and held in storage some time previously and were pulled out at an important political moment to win favor with the United States.  The cynical use of soldiers’ remains has been typical of North Korea.  More progress on remains recovery is unlikely unless and until there is political progress on other issues.

The Outlook for Progress after Hanoi 

One year after President Trump and Kim Jong-un made the “historic” decision for the first time to meet face-to-face in Singapore, it is still much too early to determine whether this is a truly “historic” event, an event that marks a significant turning point in U.S.-North Korea relations.   At this point, the United States has stopped holding large-scale military exercises with South Korean military forces.  North Korea had stopped missile and nuclear testing, though some missile tests in violation of U.N. sanctions have been resumed.  A small number of remains of American service members have been returned to the United States, but further progress has ceased.

One element is potentially significant.  Since the Singapore Summit, for some periods of time—certainly not all of the time—there has been significant and serious diplomatic engagement between the United States and North Korea.  That does represent a change in the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington.  At times, Pyongyang has played hard to get or it may be that the North Korean government is simply not geared up or equipped for serious on-going high-level diplomatic engagement.

Chairman Kim appears to be facing or provoking internal turmoil since the failure of Hanoi based on recent news stories that his most senior aide/advisor on the Hanoi Summit, Kim Jong-chol, was executed or sent to a reeducation camp (because he has since been photographed in public).  It is not clear whether Kim is sincere in his effort to engage with the United States and move toward denuclearization or whether he is playing the kind of games he and his father played in their effort to develop a nuclear weapons capacity in the North.  If Pyongyang resumes engagement with Washington, there is a possibility that Singapore could represent an important breakthrough.

President Trump, however, also is facing issues that could limit his ability or willingness to follow-up on diplomatic engagement with the North.  He faces significant domestic political issues that will increasingly require his attention.  He is facing renewed calls for his impeachment and congressional investigations.  At the same time, he is gearing-up for what will be a difficult and hard-fought reelection campaign in 2020.  Because the President insists in personally being involved on North Korea decisions, domestic political distractions could get in the way of his being able to make progress with the North even if Kim Jong-un is ready and able to deal.

If there is to be another summit, both leaders need to be assured of success because failure would be costly to the image of both, particularly after both were tainted by the humiliating failure at Hanoi.  Kim may be unlikely to push for a quick follow-up summit in light of the upcoming U.S. election.  He will not want to make an agreement with a lame-duck American president, and until the outcome of the next election is clear, Kim may well move cautiously on any serious decisions he must make that might lead to real change and improvement.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own. 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons. 

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