When U.S. President Donald Trump shook hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for the first time on June 12 in Singapore, it was unquestionably an historic moment. Kim's expression was a little stiff, and Trump patted him on the right arm as if to sooth his nerves. It was like a scene from a movie.
The two countries have been rivals for some 65 years, since the Korean War (1950-1953), and no sitting U.S. president had ever held talks with a North Korean leader. Several months ago, observers were saying that Washington and Pyongyang were on the brink of war, and we would like to see the events of June 12 as a sign of "detente" between the two nations.
The joint statement signed by Kim and Trump specified four main points including "the establishment of new U.S.-DPRK relations." Furthermore, "President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea), and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," the statement read.
These look like solid promises, but very serious concerns remain. The June 12 statement was built on the Panmunjom Declaration signed by Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27 this year, and contains no reference to the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID) of North Korea that the U.S. had been insisting on up to now.
When Trump was pressed on this point at a post-summit news conference, the president responded that if the journalist read the statement carefully, they would see CVID was indeed covered. When another reporter repeated the query, Trump said that there had not been enough time to discuss the issue. This seems like the real story, that the two leaders did not manage to boil down their discussions on CVID -- an essential component of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
It is also unclear whether North Korea has in fact agreed to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. Trump said at the news conference that Kim had expressed a desire to discard his country's nuclear program, and had also reported that Pyongyang was shuttering its missile engine testing facility.
But when will the denuclearization process start? When will it end? How will North Korea's existing warheads be disposed of? Trump said nothing concrete on any of these questions.
However, just before the summit, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had stressed that CVID was the only kind of denuclearization on the table. Amid such extreme differences of outlook even within the U.S. government, what guarantees that North Korea is sincerely implementing nuclear disarmament can we expect? We are deeply concerned that, even after such an historic summit, there will eventually be backtracking on the content of the June 12 joint statement.
We are also concerned about the fact that we never heard Kim speak personally about deciding to denuclearize or the process to that end. It must be said that, even as U.S.-North Korea relations warm, the future of the nuclear weapon and ballistic missile problems that so profoundly affect Japan and other regional nations remains opaque.
On the other hand, the U.S. has guaranteed the continued existence of the North Korean regime, further raising the possibility of a peace treaty to finally officially end the Korean War. Relations between North and South Korea are also more harmonious, and it is now possible to foresee an end to the last Cold War conflict in Asia. On this point, Japan, too, must respond with agility and grace.
In the June 12 statement, North Korea also committed to cooperating to recover the remains of prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action in the Korean War, and to repatriating those already identified. This appears to have been included to please Trump, who places much importance on the U.S. military.
Meanwhile, though it is not included in the joint statement, Trump also revealed at the news conference that he had spoken to Kim about past abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea. This appeared to be a face-saving measure for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had visited Trump in Washington shortly before the summit to ask the president to press Kim on the abduction issue.
When asked if he would consider military action if North Korea broke any denuclearization agreement, Trump answered that, considering the possibly devastating consequences for South Korea and other nations, he thought military action was not realistic. In other words, the U.S. president has set the military option to the side.
Trump also revealed that the U.S. would halt joint military exercises with South Korea depending on the North's reaction, while also expressing a wish to see U.S. troop numbers in South Korea reduced. It must be said that this is a major policy course change, though it does align Trump with past U.S. administrations that decided military action against North Korea was a practical impossibility.
In both positive and negative ways, the outcome of the summit with Kim was undoubtedly Trumpian. The U.S. president has often made it loud and clear that he dislikes established authority figures and experts. His signature slogan "Make America Great Again" is premised on the idea that career politicians who have risen through the U.S. political establishment have endangered the United States. Meanwhile, he has lambasted past administrations' "failed" North Korea policies.
During the 2016 presidential election campaign, Trump mused that he could solve the nuclear issue over hamburgers with Kim Jong Un. The June 12 summit seems to have been designed to show Trump was ready to undertake top-level negotiations and solve the North Korea problem any way he could.
However, the strongest impression left by the Singapore summit was that it was all a piece of political theater. Trump's invitation to Kim to visit the White House was also no doubt a part of the president's personal style, but whether the visit can actually happen will have to be judged based on how events progress from here. Of course, the focus of that judgment will be whether North Korea quickly begins denuclearizing.