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Trump-Kim summit: More style than substance?

Alexander Pearson
June 12, 2018

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have ended a summit in Singapore with a joint declaration committing Pyongyang to denuclearization. But how substantive is this pledge?

President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore
Image: Reuters/K. Lim

US President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un were all smiles on Tuesday as they hailed the progress they said they had made during their historic meeting in Singapore.

Trump celebrated his counterpart as a "very talented man" and assured the world that the US had achieved its headline goal going into the talks — a "comprehensive" joint declaration that commits to "the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

Kim too was upbeat. He said both sides had "decided to leave the past behind" and that "the world will see a major change." He also appeared to get something in exchange for giving up his nuclear weapons — US "security guarantees" to North Korea and the establishment of "a lasting and robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula."

Read more: From Rocket man to "denuclearization" - a timeline

However, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas urged caution on the back of Tuesday's meeting, saying that North Korea's policies to date offered good reason for mistrust. 

"We have to wait and see whether North Korea is really prepared to give up its nuclear weapons as part of this substantial peace process," Maas told German newspapers in the Funke group. 

While he welcomed the agreement signed by Trump and Kim, Germany's top diplomat stressed that the summit wasn't about posing for pictures. "It's about the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea. Kim Jong Un must be ready for this if he wants to lead his country back into the international community."

Trump-Kim Singapore summit: Beatrice Fihn (ICAN) speaks to DW

More style than substance

But the brief declaration was short and vague, with few details on how Pyongyang would denuclearize or how the US would verify steps toward that goal.

Angela Stanzel, an expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told DW that a substantive road map for denuclearization was never the goal going into the summit.

"This meeting was a meeting for the sake of a meeting," she said, adding that the "symbolic announcement" could only be seen as a foundation for US and North Korean officials to try and hash out concrete steps toward a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

One missing detail that will be crucial in future talks is the sensitive issue of verification. Previous nuclear talks between the US and North Korea, most recently in 2009, broke down after North Korea rejected intrusive verification measures demanded by the US.

Trump assured reporters after the summit that US and international inspectors would monitor North Korea's commitment this time around, but it remains unclear why both sides did not include that detail in the final declaration. The UN's atomic watchdog the IAEA on Tuesday said that it "stands ready to undertake any verification activities in the DPRK."

Is North Korea's commitment genuine?

In light of the history of failed talks and the North Korean leadership, some experts are skeptical of Pyongyang's sincerity this time around.

"North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons easily, if at all," said Evans J.R. Revere, an expert at the Brooking Institute in Washington and a former US State Department official.

"North Korea wants to resuscitate the approach it pursued in every previous nuclear negotiation: Launch a lengthy, complicated negotiation to get agreement on actions each party must take, and use this process to buy time for the development of the North's nuclear weapons program," he said.

Defining 'security guarantees'

Another topic diplomats will have to discuss is what exactly the declaration means by US "security guarantees" to North Korea.

Trump appeared to shed light on the former when he told reporters the US and South Korea would suspend their "war games" — annual joint military exercises that usually elicit angry reactions from Pyongyang.

Janka Oertel, an expert at the Berlin-based German Marshall Fund, told DW the joint military exercises were important because they ensure that US and South Korean forces are able to fight effectively in unison should a conflict break out.

Trump nevertheless said the US could restart the exercises if talks soured and pledged to keep the 32,000 US soldiers stationed in South Korea going forward, raising questions about how committed the US is to guaranteeing North Korea's security.

What about human rights?

North Korea's abysmal human rights record, which previous US administrations have sharply criticized, was not even mentioned in the declaration.

"We wish he [Trump] had covered detention facilities and prison camps [in North Korea]," Arnold Fang, an expert at Amnesty International, told DW. He admitted that it was "understandable" given the summit's focus on denuclearization, but that it was "disappointing" human rights did not even appear to be discussed during the talks.

And there is the problem of Trump himself. Iran's nuclear deal with the international community has been scrapped under Trump's tenure. And over the weekend, the president rescinded support for a joint declaration from the Group of Seven (G7) countries over Twitter minutes after signing it. 

ECFR expert Stanzel joked the same could happen with the North Korean joint declaration: "[Let's] hope that Trump doesn't take anything back while he's on his way home!"

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