If you look at a photograph of the Korean Peninsula at night you will see almost everything from the 38th parallel to the Chinese border is pitch black. This vast expanse of darkness is North Korea and resembles the most undeveloped areas of Africa at night. The meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un in Singapore may signal the beginning of the end of this darkness, but it will take time and we must be patient.
In my lifetime, I have only ever known North Korea as a brutal dictatorship that threatens South Korea and the United States. After last summer’s nuclear tests I thought North Korea had clearly overstepped their boundaries. I never thought war was imminent, but I did expect a powerful response from the Trump administration.
Before the summit in Singapore, I had only seen Kim alongside his top advisors. Seeing Kim and President Trump shake hands looked like a movie scene. Some people think these warm gestures gave the U.S. the short end of the deal. Kim got his photo-op and had his ego stroked by President Trump and that was it. I think otherwise. They key is to look at where U.S. and North Korea relations were a year ago compared to now. This summit is clearly historic and not supposed to be the endgame. Those who do not think enough was done in the first meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader need to take some facts into account.
Until this spring, this summit was impossible. Last summer, the North Koreans were testing nuclear weapons and claiming a warhead could reach the U.S. mainland. President Trump said North Korea would be met with “fire and fury,” and called Kim a “Little Rocket Man.” I was worried the president’s Twitter fingers would anger Kim to the point of war. Then the U.S. imposed economic sanctions on the North and took steps to make sure they actually worked. Maybe the impact of the sanctions was bad enough for Kim to cave.
This meeting was the first with a man widely regarded as a psychopath, a man whose regime oppresses all those who speak out against it. Foreign policy negotiations rarely take one meeting. I expect that with Kim and his advisers these meetings will be a negotiation marathon. Given those reasons you cannot expect too much from the summit. The fact remains that we are talking and we are not threatening to kill each other. That’s progress.
Another set of complaints about the summit not being a U.S. success are the four broadly worded points agreed upon by both leaders. Yes, there is plenty of room for interpretation and no explicit steps to the resolutions of these points. But, I believe these agreements are just the start of a partnership and mean something simple. The points are not meant to impress you, but to show that the U.S. and North Korea are beginning to cooperate after many years of hostility.
The first point states, “The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.” It seems like this is a straightforward enough statement emphasizing compromise. Any agreement of this type should include such language.
The second point reads, “The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” The U.S. and North Korea want peace and there will be many steps in this process. North Korea’s human rights issues and economic improvement will have to wait. The largest task for both sides is to denuclearize the Korea Peninsula. Which brings me to the third point.
“Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Nuclear capability is the largest issue on the table and the most complicated. President Trump and Kim presented the big idea. It will take Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a high-level North Korean official to handle the details. But, how much ground will the North give up? It would not surprise me if Kim does not want to end his nuclear program completely.
Lastly, “The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.” This is a win for the U.S. Families can have closure for lost loved ones. President Trump also give the impression that he has intentions with North Korea other than stopping a nuclear threat. You might be in luck later on if you want North Korea to suffer for their human rights abuses. I feel this is practice for larger scale peace operations such as denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
Other issues to some include President Trump’s agreement to stop U.S. and South Korea joint military exercises. Why concede that to Kim? Those exercises remind the North that we have superior military capabilities. They are seen by Pyongyang as a threat. This announcement also confused the South Koreans and the Pentagon at first. The U.S. and South Korea have since said that they plan to halt large scale military exercises.
Another head scratcher for some is that President Trump never condemned Kim’s inhumane treatment of prisoners. He is the last person President Trump should call a “very smart guy.” But, he did, and it was to make Kim feel accepted and important.
President Trump said he discussed human rights problems with Kim “briefly.” Extensive conversation about those problems probably was not on the agenda since it was not included in the four points.
I think both decisions by President Trump were made strategically to aid the U.S. in future negotiations. The president has said since the meeting that he did not denounce Kim for human rights problems in order to keep good relations with North Korea.
Kim has to feel safe. Which is why President Trump announced an end to military exercises with South Korea. Also, Kim has to feel happy to negotiate. Which is why the president flattered him. At some point President Trump might have to stop being nice if pressure on Kim is needed.
North Korea has been isolated for decades. If it wants to step away from isolation it will take more than one meeting to negotiate and help them achieve goals. The steps taken in Singapore were small, but they were in the right direction. Slow and steady wins the race, remember?