Washington, DC – Short on details and long on hype, US President Donald Trump’s historic handshake with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was greeted in the US with scepticism and partisan sniping, but may prove to be a major strategic turning point if follow-up talks fall into place.
Negotiations to be led on the US side by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are to begin next week and will prove crucial to whether the momentum generated by the Singapore summit can lead to a successful diplomatic outcome, analysts said.
While the diplomatic tone now is positive, real challenges lie ahead in talks that will take months or even years.
North Korea has halted its development of ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. The US will suspend military exercises with South Korea planned for August, war games the North regards as America’s “hostile policy”.
In effect, the two sides have reached a freeze-for-freeze position advocated for years by China and other parties as a first step towards effective negotiations.
“The most important thing is, this is the beginning of a process and it’s a process that keeps us away from ‘fire and fury’ and a possible war,” Tom Z Collina, director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund, a nonproliferation advocacy group, told Al Jazeera.
“Yes, the expectations were too high and people were disappointed, but the important thing is that the process is moving forward and the administration is going to meet again with the North Koreans. So, let’s go. It’s moving us in the right direction,” Collina said.
Previous US administrations under former presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton attempted and failed to make nuclear agreements work with North Korea. What is different now is that North Korea‘s relatively young leader is demonstrating he wants to take a different path than his father or grandfather.
“Kim Jong-un has a broader vision,” Bill Richardson, a former US Ambassador to the United Nations and Special Envoy to North Korea under President Bill Clinton, told Al Jazeera. “Kim Jong-un’s interest is in rebuilding his country through investment, through new energy grids, through infrastructure, through more of a private-sector vision.”
What has not changed is the pattern of North Korean negotiation, “which is don’t get into details, don’t promise anything, let the other side go first, don’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” Richardson said.
Reaction in the US Congress to the news from Singapore was partisan, with opposition Democrats sharply critical and Republicans attempting to be supportive even as they were trying to decipher what had just happened. Vice President Mike Pence, who had received a telephone call from Trump, met Republicans privately in their regular weekly party lunch to explain the deal.
Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican, told reporters in the US Capitol that Pence had relayed to senators that Trump sounded upbeat and confident in a phone call from Air Force One en route from Singapore to Guam.
“What we’ve seen with the Singapore agreement is a continued path toward denuclearisation. Kim Jong-un giving that commitment to President Trump and in writing that we will continue down the path toward complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation of the North Korean regime,” Gardner said. Whether Kim is serious will be demonstrated as the parties take next steps.
“President Trump seems to have given away two or three of the major things that Kim Jong-un wanted without getting anything in return,” Senate Democrat leader Chuck Schumer said.
Among the concerns in the US Congress was the lack of any visible progress between Trump and Kim on human rights for the North Korean people.
Congress passed a law in 2016 mandating improvement on human rights before economic sanctions can be lifted. North Korea is one of the most repressive regimes in the world, according to a June 2018 report by Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental group.
“North Korea is not a normal government, not by a long shot, and if Pyongyang wants to come in from the cold and end its pariah status, it needs to accept human rights accountability and reforms, starting by closing its gulags and letting prisoners return home,” Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement from Singapore.
The meeting in Singapore followed intensive preparations between the US and North Koreans. Working groups held meetings in Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. Secretary Pompeo made two visits to North Korea including a secret trip while still director of the CIA. Kim Yong-chol, a top North Korean official, met Pompeo in New York to salvage the summit plans after Trump had abruptly cancelled.
The fact that the US was unable to get detailed commitments from the North Koreans in the meeting with Trump is a clear sign these talks will be protracted, long-term negotiations.
“Leading up to the summit, it appeared as though there were differences between the North Koreans and the Trump team in terms of the pacing and the sequencing of action-for-action steps that each side were talking about,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, an independent think-tank dedicated to controlling nuclear weapons.
“The fact that the summit communique is brief, that it hits major points and goals without the details, could reflect the fact that the two sides are still not on the same page,” Kimball said.
A report of the summit agreement by the Korean Central News Agency emphasized that Trump confirmed the US would provide security guarantees for North Korea in exchange for Kim’s firm commitment to denuclearise.
“Ultimately these negotiations are going to have to bring in and involve other parties because, in terms of the security guarantees North Korea wants, it cannot be done just by the United States,” Gary Locke, former ambassador to China under President Obama, said in a conference call with reporters.
“The grand bargain is obviously going to have to involve, certainly China and possibly Russia and obviously South Korea and possibly Japan. At some point, these negotiations will have to take into view the contributions of other countries.”
There are a number of multilateral diplomatic steps like to follow the Trump-Kim meeting. A meeting between China President Xi Jinping and Kim is to be announced soon. Russia President Vladimir Putin may soon follow. Kim will be invited to speak to the UN in New York this summer, giving Trump an opportunity to bring the North Korean leader to Washington.
Ultimately, the politics of building a secure peace is about forging relationships that go well beyond just reducing military postures, Ploughshares Fund’s Collina said.
“It’s a matter of completely transforming the relationship so that we wouldn’t attack North Korea any more than we would attack South Korea and that the North knows that, has confidence of that. It’s going to take years.”