If success is to be defined in terms of starting a high-level negotiation process, then the summit meeting of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un was a success. But if success is defined in terms of content, then the summit has failed because it did not deliver any substance that went beyond what has been agreed previously.
President Trump did mention that North Korea will destroy a missile engine test site as a practical step – and they have already destroyed the warhead test site. But this is not necessarily an indication of long-term policy change. Neither leader made a public commitment that North Korea will halt its nuclear weapons programme – a promising indicator would have been Kim Jong-un agreeing to provide an inventory of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
Importantly, the aspiration to work towards ‘denuclearization’ was left undefined. While the US interprets denuclearization as being North Korea renouncing its nuclear weapons programme, North Korea interprets it as the ‘denuclearization of the Korean peninsula’. These two interpretations are very different.
The US view: Complete, irreversible, verifiable dismantlement
From the US perspective, denuclearization of North Korea involves, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated earlier this week, the ‘complete, irreversible, verifiable dismantlement’ of North Korean nuclear weapons programme. But this may turn out to be an impossible task.
First, the North Korean nuclear weapons capability is not well known outside the country. The US has estimated that in 2017 North Korea had enough material to make 12 nuclear weapons each year. But experience from the Cold War serves as a good lesson for not relying on estimates – the US and Soviet Union consistently assessed each other’s capabilities incorrectly for over 40 years.
This uncertainty means that if and when North Korea presents its detailed inventory, there will be low confidence in its veracity and complete denuclearization will be hard to certify. In addition, even early negotiations will be tricky without having confidence in North Korea’s facilities and locations, and the numbers in the nuclear arsenal.
Second, verifying any dismantlement process would require an intrusive verification regime between the US and North Korea. North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and has not allowed international inspectors in since then. Japan is reported to have offered £2 million to support international inspections of North Korea’s programme and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated that the International Atomic Energy Agency and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization could play a role in verifying the long-term aspects of denuclearization. But it is unclear if these or other proposals would be acceptable to North Korea.
Third, any dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme will not be irreversible. Even if North Korea agrees to give up its capabilities, it now has the knowledge, the science and the technology to make nuclear weapons in the future.
North Korea’s view: Denuclearizing the Korean peninsula
If denuclearization is defined as the ‘denuclearization of the Korean peninsula’, then Kim-Jong-un has more advantages. This definition means that denuclearization is not limited to North Korea, and certainly does not have a time limit. There have been no nuclear weapons stationed in South Korea since 1991 but there would be an issue over US naval vessels and the policy of ‘neither confirm nor deny’ on which the US has always insisted in regards to nuclear weapons on board.
The Singapore summit does indicate a willingness to work towards a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons, but no concrete steps, measures or timelines have been proposed as yet – the process currently relies on verbal declarations and good faith. The history of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament teaches that good faith can only go so far.
Denuclearization would be part of a bigger security context whereby the Korean peninsula will be free of nuclear weapons once there is no threat to the survival of North Korea. A removal of that threat would likely involve the US removing troops from the Korean peninsula, radically altering the extended nuclear deterrence relationship with Japan and South Korea and reinterpreting the commitments under the mutual defence treaty between the US and South Korea.
Following the summit, President Trump stated that the US will stop conducting military exercises in the Korean peninsula because these exercises are provocative and costly. He, however, did not explain how the US commitment to its allies through security assurances will continue, considering that these exercises are part of South Korea’s military posture and capabilities.
A joint statement without a clear roadmap or timelines of the steps to create peace in the Korean peninsula will face difficulties in the long run. The summit may have made good television, but when there is so much more to do, real congratulations must wait.