On June 12, 2018, a crucial Summit Meeting took place at Sentosa Island, in Singapore, between the U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un, ended up producing what the two leaders called an historic deal, which would have laid the groundwork for further negotiations by indicating four basic pillars, aimed at effectively reducing the risk of nuclear escalation and instability in the Korean Peninsula, in North-East Asia, and in the whole world.
The four points agreed upon at the Summit Meeting touch all the major issues related to the North Korean question. The first one is about the two countries’ reciprocal engagement in establishing new relations, respectful of their peoples’ shared need of peace and prosperity. In the second point, the two leaders affirm their engagement and reciprocal sustain in the buildup of a durable and stable peace regime for the Korean Peninsula. The third pillar of the Singapore agreement refers to the Panmunjom Declaration, signed on April 27, 2018, by the two Korean countries’ heads of states, Moon and Kim, and to this regard, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) reiterates its commitment in working for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Finally, the fourth directive relate to the U.S. and North Korea reaffirmed will to recover the remains of prisoners who disappeared in the War, included the immediate repatriation of those already identified.
The deal showed immediately that the application of deterrence theory has played a critical role in both the DPRK and U.S.’ political and negotiating strategies. On the one hand, the DPRK’s main deterrence objective was to discourage an American power take off, and thus it used a provocative behavior, in its political statements, in military terms and diplomatic posture, while also trying to reinforce its position at the negotiating table. On the other hand, the U.S.’ nuclear deterrent served to make clear that any attack from Pyongyang would have provoked the American retaliation and the defeat of the North Korea’s regime, avoiding that the North Korean threats could led to nuclear escalation. Together with that, the Singapore deal has been immediately criticized by many analysts, which pointed out the complete lack of any specific plan of action and remarked the document’s vagueness about the future development of its four points, and especially on North Korea’s engagement in denuclearization and disarmament. Although the Declaration itself clarified its only directive role, the absence of deadlines and any kind of binding prescriptions made it a simple declaration of intents, for which many understood the deal as a tool for the two leaders to gain in terms of both their electorates and worldwide public opinion, rather than a “historic” agreement or an effective political turning point.
Yet, the Hanoi Summit held last February suddenly ended without any agreement, because of divergent ideas about priorities and different perceptions of the goal of denuclearization itself. In detail, the Korean leader asked the removal of almost every sanction, before completing the process of denuclearization, but offering in exchange the dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear site and the commitment to stop nuclear testing. If the (in)conclusion of the Vietnamese meeting has showed that the times were not yet mature, at the same time it has revealed that the two leaders are actually concerned with the achievement of concrete results. Together with that, according to The Diplomat, the Summit confirmed that “Any initial deal would resemble the same deals the U.S. has been discussing with North Korea over the past 25 years: North Korea trades some denuclearization for economic concessions”. Since then, nuclear negotiations have encountered a new phase of stalemate, and tensions are rising once again, culminating with a new kind of short-range missile test conducted by the North last May toward the Sea of Japan. Although the launches (May 4 and 9) do not represent an act of noncompliance with the DPRK’s self-imposed moratorium, which was only about intermediate range ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles), but it clearly contain a reminder of Kim’s “maximum pressure approach”, and the implicit message that it can be restored anytime. But Hanoi does not mark the complete failure of the efforts that led to the Singapore Summit last year, and according to Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Suzanne DiMaggio “The elements of a potential interim deal were left on the table in Hanoi, providing a clear basis for continuing talks”, in which both sides state to be still interested in.
One year after the Singapore Summit, how have the DPRK nuclear crisis actually evolved? What could happen next, and what is needed for the distention to overcome today’s stalemate?
In spite of the renewal of tensions, it seems that Kim Jong Un is now adopting a very cautious approach in its escalatory strategy. According to DPRK expert Joshua Pollack, this condition aims at bringing back Washington to the negotiating table, and would thus last as long as the US would refrain from threatening gestures. As explained by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, although the diplomatic process has slowed, the two sides remain willing to resume negotiations and achieve the final goal of denuclearization, but “it is an intricate and complex problem and cannot be solved overnight”.
However, one year on, the diplomatic process is still at a pre-negotiation stage. Indeed, as Suzanne DiMaggio reported, “the fundamentals required to carry out a productive diplomatic process remain unsettled”, and “we could slip back to a ratcheting up of hostilities quickly, including once again spiraling toward military confrontation either by design or by accident”. There have been some progresses in the path toward distention, but as Senior Fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies Jung Pak put it, they only “Have had little impact on North Korea’s existing (and advanced) nuclear weapons program, its probable ongoing production of fissile materials, disruptive cyber activities, possession of chemical and biological weapons, and abhorrent human rights violations.” Most experts believe a third summit being a realistic expectation, but domestic and international conditions are not yet there. According to White House National Security Adviser John Bolton “Kim Jong Un holds the key”, while Duyeon Kim, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and columnist, considers this possibility “As likely as Trump wants it to be”, but given that the US President is concerned with the 2020 elections, Ken Gause argued that “It’s hard to see the U.S. taking the steps necessary to seriously reengage with Pyongyang anytime soon”. Yet, it is unrealistic that Kim Jong-un would make the first move in the absence of ay significant demonstration by Washington.
Evaluating the most important achievements of the Singapore Declaration requires first of all an analysis of the development of its four pillars. To begin with, no serious progress has been made with the first and second bullet points, related to the re-establishment of the US-DPRK relations aimed at achieving peace and prosperity and to the engagement in building an effective peace regime in the Peninsula. For what concern the third operational clause about denuclearization, which represents a very sensitive aspect, it can be noticed that the lack of a clear and shared definition of this issue has played a crucial role in the overall limited progress and mostly, in the failure of the Hanoi Summit. Yet, it is also worth noting that North Korea gave a significant demonstration with the destruction of its one and only nuclear test site, thus making it almost impossible for the regime to come back to nuclear testing. Finally, with regard to the fourth pillar on the repatriation of POW/KIA remains from the Korean War, shortly after the conclusion of the deal in Sentosa there was the return of the remain of 55 UN service personnel lost in the DPRK between 1950 – 1953. This is considered the most successful of the goals set out last year, yet some analysts like Ankit Panda, Adjunct Senior Fellow at Federation of American Scientists, have also pointed out that its implementation has quickly come to a standstill.
One year since the conclusion of the Singapore Summit, non-nuclear capabilities have increased their potential as relevant tools for distention. Although the North’s denuclearization remain the priority goal, a resizing in its conventional defense establishment capabilities would significantly facilitate the process of normalizing the relations, especially between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the DPRK, which in turn, represents a crucial step in the path toward the buildup of a stable peace regime in Korea, and toward the objective of denuclearization of the Peninsula itself. In the same spirit, prudent changes in the American military posture in the South can further contribute to achieve these goals. Without the two Koreas seriously re-engaged in smile-diplomacy, it would be impossible to achieve a stable peace regime in the Peninsula. According to the data provided by a survey conducted by the IES-VUB Institute, the majority of American, Chinese, Japanese and Russian public opinions believe that the improvement of inter-Korean relations would also bring about significant beneficial effects to their countries, which should thus actively cooperate in supporting the rapprochement.
In the pattern to enhance the normalization of both the U.S./DPRK and ROK/DPRK relations, also CBMs can play a crucial role. As argued by non resident Senior Fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Programme Richard Sokolsky, “It might be easier to make progress on conventional force reductions and CBMs between North and South Korea than on nuclear disarmament, which could help to sustain negotiating momentum toward reconciliation and normalization and provide a hedge against an impasse in US-DPRK talks over denuclearization”. Indeed, the CBMs have the potential to provide positive incentives to the countries’ diplomatic relations, which will create in turn further room for CBMs, thus generating a virtuous circle, and will accomplish one of the most important Pyongyang’s political goals, while also contributing to a more stable regional environment and to the Korean Peninsula demilitarization.
Twelve months on, it has emerged once again that the building of reciprocal trust is a prior step, and not by chance the historic meeting took place after the North has stopped testing long-range ballistic missiles. Mostly, it has become even clearer that the most important condition to achieve an irreversible negotiated solution is the set-up of a phased process with a sustainable agreed-upon agenda and a well-defined roadmap, built step by step, and made of reciprocal waivers and the progressive abandoning of strength positions.