On June 12, U.S. President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) met at the Singapore Summit, the first ever meeting between the heads of states of these two countries. After a short one-on-one meeting, an expanded bilateral session and a working lunch with key aides of both sides, the two leaders signed a joint statement, designed to mark this historic meeting and “to leave the past behind,” according Kim Jong-un. But what is the real outcome for the parties involved? And who benefited the most?
A win-win situation?
The main outcome of the summit agreement is President Trump’s commitment to provide security guarantees to North Korea in exchange for a North Korean commitment to “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”, suggesting a possible win-win solution to the North Korean crisis. That is a major advance but some important questions remain unclear. Indeed, the term “denuclearization” has different meanings for the United States and North Korea: the United States understands it as a complete, verifiable and irreversible giving up of nuclear weapons whereas North Korea seems to want a dismantlement of its nuclear program in an incremental way. But neither explanations nor a timetable was given in the joint declaration or in press conferences to indicate how and when the dismantlement would be achieved and verified. In addition, U.S. security guarantees, required in exchange for denuclearization, were not specified in the joint statement but President Trump announced after the summit that the U.S. military exercises with South Korea would stop indefinitely since they were highly perceived as provocative. This represents a major and surprising concession to North Korea with potential repercussions for the U.S.-South Korean relations.
Regarding the removal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, which constitute the main danger for North Korea’s survival in case of denuclearization, nothing was mentioned in the joint statement whereas it was one of the most expected security guarantees to discuss. However, President Trump admitted during his press conference that he wanted to eventually get U.S. troops out of South Korea altogether. Therefore, this question still remains and will certainly be the most problematic issue in the negotiations since the United States could be unlikely to negotiate such removal that would weaken its position in Asia where other great powers like China and Russia –perceived as revisionist powers) are emerging and could be a threat to its supremacy in the region.
Other expected issues were also not specified after the summit -like human rights abuses in North Korea) or were briefly mentioned like economic sanctions against North Korea for which U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo specified they would not be relieved until a complete denuclearization of North Korea.
Moreover, the Singapore Summit provided benefits to leaders themselves. They committed “to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations” and “build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula”. Thus, Kim Jong-Un has succeeded in strengthening North Korea’s legitimacy and status by meeting U.S. President and starting diplomatic relations with the United States. For his part, Donald Trump can claim he has achieved what no other American presidents had before and enhance his current position in the international stage after the disastrous failure of the G7 summit, two days before the Singapore meeting.
Thus, despite some gains on each side, it seems North Korea benefited more from this summit than the United States by getting U.S. significant concession to cease military drills on the Korean Peninsula, improving North Korea’s status and giving vague assurances of denuclearization.
What’s the outcome for South Korea and China?
Despite the two countries’ meeting, two other parties are involved in the North-Korean crisis, and should be included in future four-party peace talks. First, South Korea has worked really hard towards the resolution of the North Korean crisis and by setting up the meeting between North Korea and the United States. “This wouldn’t have happened without President Moon’s initiative and deftness in balancing engagement with North Korea and close coordination with the United States,” according Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. diplomat and expert commentator on U.S. foreign policy in Asia. Indeed, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has spent years pushing for a diplomatic solution and talks with North Korea, and even more since his election by proposing “anytime, anywhere” diplomacy with North Korea. He also met Kim Jong-Un during the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit held on April 27 where they signed the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, committing the two countries to a nuclear-free peninsula and an end to the current state of the armistice -that has persisted since 1953) in order to establish a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. According to him, the Trump-Kim summit has been a significant step because “the people of the world, including those in the United States, Japan and Koreans, have all been able to escape the threat of war, nuclear weapons and missiles”, even if he remains cautious about the long process of denuclearization and the deep hostility between North Korea and the United States. In this regard, President Moon Jae-in has played an indispensable role but the final outcome will not depend on him and South Korea could suffer the consequences of a military conflict if the negotiations fail and military force seems the only option left.
China also has its own interests in the North Korean crisis. Indeed, de-escalation and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula could allow more stability in the region. In particular, the United States’ commitment to cease military exercises on the Korean Peninsula and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea are good for China’s goals to counter U.S. presence in the region and increase Chinese influence on the Korean Peninsula. Indeed, such concessions would challenge U.S. military commitment in the region for peace and security and could also weaken American alliances with South Korea and Japan. Thus, Washington’s influence, legitimacy and power projection in the region would be diminished a lot, which could allow Beijing to gain a substantial leverage over the United States in Asia Pacific. That is why China may be the biggest winner of the Singapore summit.
To conclude, as former Vice President Joe Biden declared, the Trump-Kim agreement was “very light on details” and many issues still remain to be discussed between the parties. We will have to wait the follow-on negotiations, led by the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a relevant high-level North Korean official, in order to see how a denuclearization process could be possible and if a real path to peace can finally take place on the Korean Peninsula. However, it seems North Korea emerged victorious from this summit by gaining more advantages than the United States. But, most surprisingly, China may benefit most and become the biggest winner of the resolution of the North Korean crisis, given the potential U.S. concessions that could serve its interests in the region and in the game between the two great powers.