The historic summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has concluded. The summit was a triumph in atmospherics, but broke no new ground in substance.
Following its conclusion, President Trump declared:
I want to thank Chairman Kim for taking the first bold step toward a bright new future for his people. Our unprecedented meeting, the first between an American president and leader of North Korea. Proves that real change is indeed possible. My meeting with Chairman Kim was honest, direct, and productive. We got to know each other well in a very confined period of time…
Chairman Kim and I just signed a joint statement which he reaffirmed his unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula…
Chairman Kim is on his way back to North Korea and I know for a fact that as soon as he arrives he will start a process that will make a lot of people very happy and very safe.
Despite such triumphalist language, things actually stand pretty much where they were 25 years ago. On June 11, 1993, the United States and North Korea issued a joint declaration committing them to “peace and security in a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
That declaration was followed by the October 21, 1994 Agreed Framework that detailed the steps North Korea would take to close down its nuclear weapons program in return for actions that the United States would take in relation to those measures. That process ultimately floundered. A subsequent diplomatic process during the 2000s also failed. Afterward, North Korea developed and tested nuclear weapons, including a hydrogen bomb.
The joint statement following President Trump’s summit with the North Korean leader was remarkably sparse. Among other things, it noted, “Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” It also stated that the two leaders had reaffirmed the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration under which “the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Although “denuclearization” was referenced three times in the joint statement, neither its definition nor other specifics were laid out. Language about verification was absent. Instead, the document was sprinkled with language such as “peace” (5 references), “new” (5 references), “history” (1 reference), “historic” (1 reference), and “epochal” (1 reference). The joint statement was more notable for its packaging that its detail. It painted a picture of a historic achievement, but it lacked the underlying substance to affirm that outcome. It was a declaration of raw potential.
The document was limited, because the differences between the United States and North Korea remain vast. There also was insufficient time to negotiate any detailed agreements between March 9 when President Trump agreed to the summit and its being held. As a result, the parties resorted to reaffirming earlier understandings, even as North Korea had not delivered in the past on those commitments.
Further, the document referenced the more detailed Panmunjom Declaration. The two Koreas had reached more substantive understandings on a range of measures including the bilateral relationship between the two states, a reduction of tensions, and the pursuit of a “solid peace regime.” Because the two Koreas’ positions were spelled out in greater detail, the United States and North Korea used those understandings to add substance to the joint declaration signed by Trump and Kim.
Where will things lead?
Much will depend on the intent of the parties. Those intentions will be revealed over time, through actions, not words.
The diplomatic process that will now unfold will play out in a context that differs from that of 1993. In 1993, the Cold War had recently ended with the breakup of the Soviet Empire and liberation of its satellite states. The United States and its allies had won a smashing, lightning-quick victory over Iraq in liberating Kuwait. North Korea had a nuclear weapons program, but had not yet developed nuclear weapons.
Today, the global balance of power is in flux. China appears destined to become a superpower. Russia is a revanchist state that is applying pressure against the liberal world order. The United States is broadly disengaging from world affairs and has grown antagonistic toward its longstanding allies. The United States is also in the early stages of experiencing rising structural budget deficits that, if ignored, will sap its strategic flexibility. At the same time, the gap in North Korea’s standard of living relative to China and South Korea has widened dramatically.
The difference in context gives North Korea possibly greater leverage than it possessed in 1993, but perhaps also stronger motivation to change course to improve its dismal standard of living. If North Korea is not serious about eliminating its nuclear weapons, it has more options available than had been the case in 1993. Today, it can more effectively play China off the United States. From having created the impression of goodwill and renewed commitment to denuclearization, it can work with China and Russia to relax their cooperation in enforcing the international sanctions regime. It can engage in dilatory tactics with the expectation that it will be in an even stronger position over time should the United States continue to turn inward while neglecting its structural fiscal challenges.
An early accounting following the summit, shows that the United States gained renewed North Korean commitments to “complete denuclearization.” North Korea gained an immediate American suspension of joint military training exercises with South Korea. North Korea received concrete substance for a promise.
In terms of intangibles, the struggling Trump Administration obtained a diplomatic achievement it can highlight, even as that accomplishment fell far short of a breakthrough. North Korea’s leader gained the prestige and perceived legitimacy as an “equal” with the head of state of the United States.
Whether the summit will prove to be step toward a genuine breakthrough remains to be seen. There remains some possibility that North Korea has embarked on a new course, but significant risk that it is replaying a familiar script that will lead to a familiar but unsatisfying ending. Only the passage of time coupled with the verified implementation of concrete measures will write the ending of this latest diplomatic saga. That “writing” still lies ahead.