A Historic Breakthrough or a Historic Blunder in Singapore?

Op-Ed in Foreign Affairs

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore for summit meeting

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un as they meet at the start of their summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore on June 12, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

--This is an excerpt from an op-ed that was originally published by Foreign Affairs.-- 

The Singapore summit was mesmerizing political theater. In this latest installment of “diplotainment,” live from the Oval Office, U.S. President Donald Trump assured the American people that they could trust Kim Jong Un and that North Korea's supreme leader was sincere about denuclearization. Further adding to the spectacle was a faux film trailer that Trump had prepared for Kim. Claiming to have been produced by “Destiny Pictures,” the video featured footage of Trump and Kim as tense music played in the background; a male narrator spoke in overly dramatic tones: “A new story, a new beginning, one of peace. Two men, two leaders, one destiny. A story in a special moment in time. When a man is presented with one chance that may never be repeated, what will he choose?”

Trump is certainly correct in pointing out that he made history in meeting amicably with his North Korean adversary. But it is yet to be determined whether he made a historic breakthrough or a historic blunder. No previous U.S. president considered it prudent to embark on summitry with so little preparation or on terms so favorable to the other side, let alone to promise to unilaterally discontinue defensive joint U.S.–South Korean military exercises on the Korean Peninsula. For his part, Kim can rightfully boast that he has accomplished what his father and grandfather could only dream of: achieving the twin goals of building a viable nuclear weapons capability and then winning international acceptance as a “very honorable” peer, as he was referred to by the leader of the free world.

In the end, the joint statement that emerged from the summit is but a diluted version of numerous past aspirational documents put forward by North Korea and its negotiating partners. It lightly echoes inter-Korean agreements dating back to the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It contains watered-down versions of pledges in international deals such as the 1994 Agreed Framework and the 2005 joint statement of the fourth round of the six-party talks. It allows North Korea to slide from its previous commitment “to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and [return] at an early date to the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty].” And it offers a vague promise “to work toward complete denuclearization.” This can hardly be construed as progress. The Singapore joint statement is worrisomely silent on ballistic missiles, let alone chemical weapons, cyberwarfare, nuclear proliferation, and (unsurprisingly) human rights.

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