Singapore – Defence officials from countries around the world are worrying aloud that the June 12 US-North Korea summit may repeat failed efforts at denuclearising the Korean Peninsula.
Prospects for the historic meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un took centre stage at a weekend Asian security conference attended by defence chiefs from over 40 countries, with sentiments ranging from guarded optimism to downright scepticism.
Song Young-moo, South Korea’s defence minister, called the Trump-Kim summit, to be held in politically neutral Singapore, a “precious opportunity” for a new era of peace and economic prosperity in Northeast Asia.
“I hope President Trump and Chairman Kim come to a historical agreement for complete denuclearisation and complete peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Song said.
“On multiple occasions, Chairman Kim has declared a desire for complete denuclearisation and President Trump to end hostilities and achieve economic cooperation.”
But Song acknowledged the failure of past international efforts to achieve denuclearisation. The collapse of nuclear agreements struck in 1994 and 2005 contributed to North Korea’s outcast status among world leaders.
“There must be CVID (complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement), and it must be enforced, and I believe Kim Jong-un will embrace it,” Song said.
Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera strongly doubted North Korea’s sincerity, insisting it must altogether end its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
“We have seen history repeat where North Korea would declare to denuclearise, thereby portraying itself as conciliatory and forthcoming, only to turn around to void all international efforts toward peace,” Onodera said.
Onodera added, “In light of how North Korea has behaved in the past, I believe that it is important not to reward North Korea solely for agreeing to have a dialogue.”
Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan also urged a verifiable dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear programme. “North Korea has failed to deliver on promises in the past, and the world should judge its sincerity by its actions,” he said.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis acknowledged the high-stakes nature of the Trump-Kim US summit.
“Obviously, the eyes of the world, the hopes of the world are on these talks,” he said.
Mattis did not address concerns over Trump’s failure to consult regional partners on decisions such as the cancellation of the summit.
But on Sunday, he said that North Korea will “receive relief only after it takes clear and irreversible steps” to end its nuclear programme.
The US defence secretary said he expected “at best, a bumpy road to the [neogitiaitons]”.
At the conference, Mattis also said that the presence of some 28,500 US forces based in South Korea “is not on the table … nor should it be,” at the June 12 summit.
US troops have been stationed in South Korea since a 1953 armistice that left the two Koreas technically still at war. South Korean President Moon Jae-in supports an ongoing US troop presence, while North Korea has long sought a withdrawal.
“Obviously, if the diplomats can do their work, if we can reduce the threat, if we can restore confidence-building measures with something verifiable, then, of course, these kinds of issues can come up,” Mattis said.
Also at the conference – formally called the Shangri-La Dialogue, and organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies – the US and China exchanged harsh words over China’s military build-up in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest and most bitterly contested waterways, through which five trillion dollars in shipping trade passes annually.
For the last several years, China has engaged in a rapid construction of artificial islands with military facilities and weapons systems.
“Despite China’s claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion,” Mattis said.
Mattis’ comments met fierce disagreement from a Chinese general at the forum.
“Any irresponsible comments from other countries cannot be accepted,” said Lieutenant General He Lei, asserting that China has the right to deploy troops and weapons “on its own territory”.