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Is there substance behind Trump-Kim accord?


US President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un (image/Wikimedia Commons)

This week’s watershed summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was a mixed success, top-heavy with imagery and ‘smile diplomacy’ but light on concrete initiatives and promises, says Asia politics specialist Dr Marc Lanteigne. 

“Although the summit was ground-breaking, in the sense that this was the first time a sitting American president has ever met directly with a North Korean head of state, the work ahead in ensuring that relations between the two states do not deteriorate to levels seen last year will be a much more difficult and time-consuming task,” says Dr Lanteigne, from Massey’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies.

After a short one-to-one session between the leaders and their interpreters, larger meetings with American and North Korean officials followed, and by mid-afternoon the two leaders emerged to sign a document which the President called ‘pretty comprehensive’ while the North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea - DPRK) Chairman stated that meeting served to ‘leave the past behind’. Trump suggested at the end of the meeting that the process of denuclearisation could proceed ‘very quickly’ and that the door was potentially open for Kim to visit the White House. 

The four main points of the agreement included:

  • A promise by both sides to establish a new relationship in order to create ‘peace and prosperity’
  • The pacification of the Korean Peninsula
  • North Korea would work towards ‘complete denuclearisation’ as stated in the Panmunjom Declaration struck in April between Mr Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in
  • Both states would work to recover prisoners of war and the remains of those missing in action from the 1950-53 Korean conflict. 

Dr Marc Lanteigne, from the Centre for Defence and Security Studies

Lack of detail raises questions

The document was unusually light on specifics, says Dr Lanteigne. Critical questions remain, he says, such as how the initiatives will be carried out and under what timeframe, and what will be the role of South Korea in future talks. 

“The meeting was a considerable victory for the Kim regime, given that it finally, after several decades, received the degree of recognition that it had been seeking from Washington, and was treated as an equal to the United States in the course of the talks.”

Of note was the North Korean leader was not taken to task for his country’s human rights record and previous belligerent behaviour. “As well, the negotiations which will follow will likely need greater international participation and engagement, which may be difficult given the frosty relations between the US and several key friends and allies in the wake of the failed G7 meeting and opposition to the tearing up of the Iranian nuclear deal by the Trump government last month.”

Permanent peace possible?

Both sides have talked about establishing a ‘permanent peace,’ he says. “This could mean some sort of document affirming the formal end of the Korean War, which technically is still going as no peace treaty was ever signed between the North and South, but only an armistice in 1953. 

“However, any peace treaty would also need to involve South Korea, and likely China given that Beijing has maintained that it wishes to be part of the peace process. Tokyo is also concerned about any peace agreement since Japan has been frequently threatened by North Korea in the past. A future outcome of the talks could be a revival of the Beijing-backed ‘Six-Party Talks’, which included the two Koreas along with China, Japan, Russia and the United States.”

Dr Lanteigne says President Trump surprised many by suggesting that further US-South Korean military exercises would be suspended as a gesture of goodwill, a move which was reportedly not discussed with Seoul beforehand. “This decision ran counter to previous US vows that it would not accept a ‘freeze-for-freeze’ option, meaning a promise to suspend these exercises in exchange for a continued halt to DPRK missile and warhead testing. 

“While the South Korean government continues to throw its support behind US-led peace initiatives, there remains the question of whether the United States and South Korea are completely on the same page as the peace process continues.

“China, too, will be essential to any lasting peace and denuclearisation of North Korea, given its great power status in the region and its strong overreaching economic relationship with the DPRK. Beijing was largely left on the side-lines in this process, but the [Chinese] Xi Jinping government has made it clear that it supports the nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula but also wishes to be directly involved in the peace process to come,” Dr Lanteigne says.

“As a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated at the end of the Singapore Summit, ‘no one will doubt the unique and important role played by China; a role which will continue’.”

Dr Lanteigne says there is still much uncertainty about what can be accomplished in a single meeting despite its high profile. “The foreign policy team of President Trump is still greatly untested and has showed numerous signs of being divided and prone to posturing, as the G7 summit in Québec this month illustrated. As for the North Korea side, the regime has already won a victory of sorts given that it is receiving international recognition on levels never before seen, and there is the possibility of future international contacts not only with the United States but also with other major countries.”

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