President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in Singapore for nearly five hours on Tuesday and signed a document that Trump called “a very great moment in the history of the world.” You can read the document here.
But what exactly does that document mean? And what happens now? We asked four foreign policy experts for their reaction to the summit and what’s next.
The document is even less detailed than expected, said Jenny Town, a research analyst at the Stimson Center and managing editor of 38 North. The joint statement, she said, “provided no definition of terms, no sense of timing, no essential principles moving forward—and less than past agreements.”
Most shocking was Trump’s announcement that he would stop joint military exercises with the South, calling them “war games” and “provocative,” said Balbina Hwang, a visiting professor at Georgetown University and former senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Trump’s remarks at a news conference Tuesday were “probably the single most momentous shift to come out of the summit and will have the most profound reverberations, because this effectively signals the beginning of the end of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, even though it was not expressed in the written Joint Statement.” Because, she noted, what Trump means by an end to war games is open for debate and interpretation by everyone — not just allies, such as South Korea and Japan, but also North Korea, China, Russia and others. “This has regional implications far beyond Northeast Asia and for the entire global order, and indeed affects issues far beyond the nuclear issue.”
This summit is a victory for North Korea, said Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, in that the summit initiated an open-ended, drawn out negotiation process that “ensnares the U.S. into stopping the enforcement of sanctions while Pyongyang continues to further advance its nuclear and missile programs.”
The joint statement did not directly address North Korea’s missile development, chemical and biological weapons programs, or the human rights situation. Current U.S. and U.N. sanctions will stay in place and no U.S. sanctions will be added, said Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korean studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Despite the drama and historic nature of the meeting, the outcome did not live up to the hype.”
While this might set the U.S. on a more productive path, it will come with enormous criticism, Town said. “Continued high-level engagement with North Korea, meaning multiple summits and high-level negotiations, could end up resulting in an agreement that is farther reaching than what we’ve had in the past. But the tradeoff, of course, is that in the meantime, North Korea’s negotiating power and public image will grow stronger, while the core of its capabilities stays intact.”
North Korea reiterated an aspiration to achieve “complete denuclearization” and pledged to destroy a missile engine test site, but the timeline and scope of such a process are not clear, Snyder said. “In this respect, the United States appears to have given more than expected, while there are no concrete North Korean actions envisioned that might validate Kim Jong Un’s seriousness of purpose to denuclearize.”
Overall, there’s little substance here, and that’s reflected in the vagueness of the terms used, Hwang said. For example, “building lasting peace regime,” “mutual confidence building,” “promote denuclearization.” “These exact phrases have already been used in various forms in all previous iterations of joint statements, communiques and agreements signed with” North Korea, she said.
Lee called the statement “much ado about nothing” and “the most watered down joint statement concerning these two nations ever.” “Where’s the sulfur, as Hugo Chavez might say?” Lee asked. “There’s no devil — no details to delight Lucifer with.”
Hwang also points out that this is a “joint statement,” rather than a “joint agreement.” The distinction is significant diplomatically, she said, but less meaningful in the long term, politically.
But it is striking and unusual to specify leaders, as this agreement does, Hwang added. The agreement mentions Trump, North Korea’s Kim, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and “relevant DPRK-officials” by name, which “narrows the commitment/responsibilities to individuals actors rather than states,” she said.
It’s possible that better relations means the threat of a nuclear attack has already been reduced, Town said. But, she added, will all parties — especially Japan – see it that way?