N Korea Just Accused The US Of 'Gangster-Like' Diplomacy. Was The Summit A Failure?
Is Kim up to his old tricks? Was anything really accomplished in Singapore? And if so, how can it be salvaged?
President Trump concluded his summit with Kim Jong-Un proclaiming a jointly signed “comprehensive” document that committed the North Korean leader to “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. Many critics pointed to ‘denuclearization’ being undefined in the document and the substantial divergence between the two sides as to what was actually agreed. The president indicated that follow-on negotiations would clarify these matters and expressed confidence that Kim had truly promised to give up his nuclear weapons. Trump even expended considerable political capital by praising Kim as ‘very smart,’ talented, impressive, etc.
The first major follow-on negotiation agreed at the Singapore Summit is now in the books. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo departed Pyongyang claiming it was “productive,” and that the two sides had "detailed and substantive discussion about the next steps towards a fully verified and complete denuclearisation.”
So, is the world going to be safer?
Not so fast.
Pompeo was either being extremely diplomatic or missed the message. To remove all doubt, the North Koreans described their version of what transpired:
“The U.S. side came up only with its unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization …The high-level talks this time brought us in a dangerous situation where we may be shaken in our unshakable will for denuclearisation, rather than consolidating trust between the DPRK and the U.S.”
The spokesperson also claimed North Korea believed Pompeo “would come with a constructive proposal which accords with the spirit of the DPRK-US summit meeting and talks …But this expectation and hope of ours were so naive as to be gullible.”
Amidst concerns raised by the “gangster” comments, Trump tweeted:
"I have confidence that Kim Jong Un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake. We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea. China, on the other hand, may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese Trade-Hope Not!"
The president also seemed to be accusing China of “exerting negative pressure on a deal” as a bargaining chip in its trade dispute with the US.
So, was the Summit a complete failure and are the North Koreans up to their old tricks?
Trump’s critics will certainly make hay with the apparent failure of these negotiations and America being labelled a “gangster” by one of the world’s preeminent tyrants. They will slam Trump for traveling long distance to Singapore for a meeting with a dictator only to legitimise him. And they will rightly say “we told you so,” because Kim appears to have played true to form.
But they are wrong. Trump was right in meeting with Kim in Singapore.
Although Kim’s record on keeping promises was poor, the president had to take even the slimmest chance to secure peace. As Trump observed dryly at the time, nothing may come of the effort and the talks might fail.
On the flip side, Trump is wrong to call the document a “contract.” As I have written previously, the document is a non-legal agreement and has no binding force.
In order to assess the success or failure of the summit, it is necessary to honestly grasp what is possible. And that means, swallowing hard and accepting that North Korea may never give up nuclear weapons. The reasons are simple: Kim’s regime is based on the “Ten Principles in Establishing Party’s Monolithic Ideological System” – a manifesto for reifying the Kim family’s exceptional status and constructing a theory for power based on an existential external threat. The regime is constructed as a revolutionary one – not a mere government. For instance, Article 2.1 states “The Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung is a genius of the revolution, the sun of the people and a legendary hero whom we must respect unendingly, revere eternally and come to with the greatest happiness and glory …”
Article 4.3 commits people to “Unconditionally accept, treat as a non-negotiable condition, and decide everything” upon Kim Il Sung’s “instructions and in every act think only about” his “greatness.” Further, article 4.10, pledges to “Fight with all one’s will against … trends that have its origin in capitalistic ideas …” and retain “the purity of revolutionary thought and Juche ideas of the Great Leader.”
Bereft of nuclear weapons, Kim has no means of insulating his regime from being toppled. As he will know from history, there will come a point when dissent – from insiders or a popular movement – will threaten his grip on power. Kim will have to crack down brutally to suppress the revolt in order to maintain his grip on power. And the only protection against the West’s potential intervention in support of dissenters is offered by his nuclear bombs. Kim only needs to look at the fates of Gadhafi, Mubarak, or Saddam Hussein to learn this lesson.
The Singapore Summit can still go down in history as a success if the conversation moves beyond the singular focus on nuclear weapons. If Trump can convince Kim to open up his economy, shut down his slave labour camps, and end torture and rape of political prisoners that will be more than any president has accomplished.
Further, there are valuable options short of complete denuclearization: an agreement to maintain purely a minimal nuclear deterrent that will only be used as the final step in self-defence and never as a first-step. Kim will have to drastically reduce his nuclear arsenal from about 65 bombs to a low single-digit number. This will be a major concession and ought to satisfy all parties. Further, a no-first-use pledge will eliminate the nuclear threat to South Korea and Japan, and reduce tensions in the region.
Leaving a nuclear armed North Korea may also be valuable to Washington if Kim can be turned into an ally. A nuclear N.Korea can potentially be a headache for China. This is not just because of fears about aggression from that country – consider the risks of an accident. China has more to lose than the US in such a scenario because it shares a border with N.Korea.
Trump has to ignore dogmatic counsel from his own cabinet and look at the bigger picture. North Korea has no reason to attack America with its nuclear weapons. If the president expands the array of subjects for negotiations with North Korea, he truly can seize victory from the real “gangster,” and make the Summit a transformational moment in history rather than an ignoble footnote.
(Dr Sandeep Gopalan is the pro vice-chancellor for academic innovation and law professor at Deakin University)