By Donald Manzullo
After a year of exchanging insults and threats, the United States and North Korea have decided to work towards a different future. Much could still go wrong, and much remains to be done, but in Singapore Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un laid out an aspiration for a better relationship between the United States and North Korea.
The Singapore Statement is not the type of detailed document that we have come to expect from international diplomacy. It clocks in at a relatively brisk 394 words, a little less than this blog. It gains its detail not necessarily from new commitments from North Korea, but rather the agreement to work towards recovering POW/MIA remains from the Korean War and the reaffirmation of the Panmunjom Declaration.
If the statement is aspirational, many questions remain about the road ahead. In his press conference, President Trump indicated that Kim Jong-un understands the need for denuclearization, but will he be willing to commit to a more specific statement on denuclearization and inspections? The language in the Singapore Statement actually steps back from the language on denuclearization in the September 2005 Joint Statement from the Six Party Talks:
2018: Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula
2005: The D.P.R.K. committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.
Prior to the 2005 statement, North Korea had withdrawn from the Treaty Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which the statement from the Six Party Talks would have required it to rejoin. In contrast, with the collapse of the Six Party Talks, North Korea has instead continued to pursue its nuclear program.
In that same press conference, President Trump also raised questions about the future of U.S. military exercises in South Korea and the rate of sanctions relief. To the surprise of many, President Trump indicated that there will be no more military exercises in South Korea. This raise questions about the future readiness of U.S. and South Korean forces, as well as the United States’ ability to deter an attack from North Korea. It also boxes the United States and South Korea into a corner. If North Korea drags the process out and readiness deteriorates, the alliance faces the no-win choice. Allow readiness to continue to deteriorate or risk being accused of derailing the process by restarting what Trump himself has described as “provocative.” Adding to all of this, there is no indication that North Korea will be foregoing its own military exercises.
President Trump also indicated that he is open to the idea of the eventual removal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula. Couple with the decision to end military exercises, a future withdrawal of U.S. troops could be an unexpected coup for China.
On sanctions, President Trump also suggested that sanctions could come off quicker than had previously been anticipated. If the administration’s position had been that sanctions would not be removed until North Korea had dismantled its nuclear program, President Trump has suggested that “the sanctions will come off when we are sure that the nukes are no longer a factor.” This could be much quicker than the complete and verified dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program, especially with countries such as China already calling for sanctions to be lifted.
Rather than a specific commitment by North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programs, we have received an aspiration to attain denuclearization at some point. It’s a noble goal, but one that since the early 1990s has waited to be fulfilled. The question remains, will this time be different?
Donald Manzullo is President and CEO of Korea Economic Institute and former Member of U.S. Congress (1993-2013). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Leonid Yaitskiy’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.