By Jane West
So Trump met Kim and secured his place in the history books as the first sitting US president to meet a leader of the DPRK, but where this emerging ‘peace process’ will actually go is anyone’s guess!
While the communiqué issued by the summit was vague, it was followed by what appeared to be an off-the-cuff decision by Trump to offer a significant concrete concession to the DPRK in pledging to suspend the annual war games between the US and South Korea – ‘ We will be stopping the war games which will save us a lot of money and are very provocative’.
In the run-up to the summit, US military officials, including US Defence Secretary Mattis, had strongly opposed any offer to cut back the joint military exercises. And Trump’s promise seems to have taken both the US military and South Korea by surprise. The US forces in Korea issued a statement saying they had not received ‘updated guidance’ on military exercises. The South Korean military’s statement said they would ‘need to find out the exact meaning or intention’ behind ‘Trump’s comment regarding ending of the combined military drills’.
So Trump will undoubtedly come under pressure to redefine this promise, or find an excuse to rescind it. But if it is stuck to it appears to give North Korea a significant concession, in return for little more than a general pledge on denuclearisation.
The communiqué issued at the end of the summit, signed by both sides, made large promises – denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula pledged by the DPRK, ‘security guarantees’ by the US – but without concrete content, timetables or definitions.
Definitions are important. For the DPRK denuclearisation of the peninsula means reciprocal steps by other nuclear powers, in particular the US, meaning at a minimum the withdrawal of the US THAAD anti-missile system from South Korea, an end to the provocative war games and the withdrawal of at least a large part of the roughly 28,000 US troops stationed in the country. For the US ‘denuclearisation of the peninsula’ really means denuclearisation of North Korea, without any reciprocal steps.
Similarly, ‘security guarantees’ are left undefined. Unless Kim has failed to learn the lessons of Iraq, Libya and Iran – which he clearly has not – he will not accept warm words and verbal promises as protection from US aggression. Again it is hard to see how the DPRK can accept anything less than a phased drawdown of US troops from the South and the closure of US bases.
Other open questions include whether the US will diplomatically recognise the DPRK, which it has refused to do since the end of the Korean War in 1953; and whether progress will be made towards a peace treaty to formally bring that war to an end – currently the situation rests solely on the July 1953 armistice agreement. A peace treaty would have to involve all four state participants in the war – North and South Korea, the USA and China. Trump has made his dislike of such multilateral negotiations, which reduce the relative weight of the US, crystal clear on many occasions. So progress on this is not immediately on the table.
While Trump’s pledge on the war games is positive – if it is stuck to – he also made clear that sanctions would remain in place, with no timetable or tit-for-tat steps spelled out that could lead to them being lifted.
In other words, the summit raised more questions than it answered. But nonetheless a positive balance sheet so far, above all in the sense that ‘jaw, jaw’ is better than ‘war, war’.
And it is clear that, at least for the time being, neither side wants to close off this opening for talks and return to threats. Therefore we will all just have to wait and see whether either side blinks.