Winner takes all – Sentosa Summit was a win-win for one
President Donald Trump made an effort to overcome the hurdles that led to the Singapore Summit between him and DPRK Chairman Kim Jong Un. But the meeting's big winner wasn’t Trump – it was Kim.
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The much anticipated summit meeting scheduled for June 12 between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un finally resulted in a very brief statement, comprising just four bullet points.
Held in the Sentosa island of Singapore, this summit was high on visibility, with images of the two leaders and their entourages flooding audio-visual and social media over the last few days. The word ‘historic’ was used extensively – and given the geo-political context of the Korean peninsula and the number of major power stakeholders involved here, it appeared as if Singapore was in the same league as Yalta (1945) and Reykjavik (1986).
But this hype was premature.
Singapore will be historic for it is the first time indeed that a US President sat across a table with a North Korean leader, to smoke the peace-pipe, metaphorically. The symbolism of the US flag next to that of the DPRK captured this moment appropriately.
Welcome to the free world! The Sentosa Summit marked North Korea's arrival into the global tent. (Reuters)
However, there was no dramatic breakthrough. (Nor was there a breakdown that some had feared, given the mercurial nature of the US President). Further, the substance of the agreement was short. Just four bullet-like paragraphs of less than 10 lines that stated:
The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new US-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work towards the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.
To my mind, the operative part of the Singapore agreement lies in the third bullet point – wherein the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, signed by the two Koreas, was ‘reaffirmed’ by the DPRK (note that the other three bullet points bind both parties, viz. the US and theDPRK) which commits Pyongyang “to work towards the complete (emphasis added) denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
The April 27 Panmunjom Declaration is a more detailed document of three pages and it has two versions – a South Korean and a North Korean one. The former, issued by Seoul, is available in English and is being used for this preliminary assessment of the outcome of the Singapore deliberations.
It is instructive that before the agreement was signed and later made public, President Trump kept assuring the global media that the outcome would be more positive and successful than anyone had expected – and this is not misplaced. Given the short lead time between the April 27th inter-Korean summit, where the South and North Korean leaders met, and the subsequent Trump letter cancelling the summit (May 24), Singapore was stitched together in very few days.
Diplomats on both sides must be commended for arriving at an acceptable modus vivendi.
Despite the US emphasis on CVID – complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear weapons program – as the minimum benchmark that would be acceptable even to open negotiations, the acronym does not find any mention in the Singapore agreement.
Furthermore, the US did not obtain any specific assurance apropos the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and missiles that were deemed to be a threat to US security – or the allies such as Japan and South Korea. These elements were subsumed in bullet point 3 that only ‘commits’ the DPRK “to work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
What about us? The Singapore Summit leaves the position of nations like Japan, at threat from North Korea, unclear
The word 'complete' is pregnant with strategic import and whose contours are yet to be unveiled by Pyongyang.
The body language and the images of the two leaders at Singapore seemed to suggest a high degree of affability between them, which is in sharp contrast to the insults traded over the last year – recall ‘Little Rocket Man’, ‘senile dotard’, et al. It appears that in relation to North Korea (often castigated by the USA as a pariah-state, part of the ‘axis of evil’ and more), somewhere in the last week of May, despite advice to the contrary, President Trump was determined to have a ‘successful’ outcome at Singapore. Hence, the generous US accommodation of the DPRK and the many transgressions it has been accused of over the last three decades, which did not figure in the final document released in Singapore. These crimes/deviations range from brutal domestic repression, human rights violations and terrorism to nuclear and missile proliferation (which is of relevance to India), endangering regional peace and more.
On balance, it may be averred that the DPRK as the ostracized, reviled subaltern state in the summit meeting has been accorded a surprising degree of respect by President Trump.
He looked nervous. But Kim seemed to also know what Donald Trump calls 'the art of the deal'
Singapore marks the admittance of Pyongyang into the global tent.
The substantive take-away for Chairman Kim is the Trump assurance that “the United States and the DPRK commit to establish new US-DPRK relations.”
Global respect, no threat to the Kim regime and a security assurance from the USA – all achieved in a day! The DPRK has reason to be more than satisfied.
The more measured responses from the USA and its allies that will follow may tell a different story. For now, this is a win-win outcome – but both wins are in the Korean peninsula and the Panmunjom Declaration.