The 12 June Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit is being hailed around the world as a historic moment, with hopes that it will at last bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. Reading between the lines and looking beyond the niceties and magnificent optics that were on display, it is possible to discern a number of realities that indicate that the summit is, in fact, the beginning of a great gamble for both sides.
The situation is, of course, far beyond being just a bilateral United States-North Korea concern. It affects a number of other stakeholders as well; hence, the summit will not be the last word in achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula.
In real terms, North Korea continues to be under economic sanctions and the US continues to be suspicious of Pyongyang’s commitment to complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearisation. Washington will lift sanctions only ‘when nukes are no longer an issue’. Both leaders can pat themselves on the back, though, because the US has got Kim to sign off on denuclearisation in a manner that, although ill-defined, suits it, while Kim has been able to get the US-South Korean military exercises called off, at least for a time, and has bought some time for his next steps.
A Happy Ending, But Was There Any Other Option?
The US and North Korean leaders both called their summit a historic success but, given the lack of real alternatives, they were effectively compelled to do so. A successful conclusion was the only practical option because a failed summit was of no use to either side. At this stage, world leaders have taken the summit at face value and expressed happiness and hopes for a peaceful Korean Peninsula, but it is pertinent to analyse whether the concerns of a number of key actors have, or have not, been met.
- The United States will continue to be apprehensive until it is verified that North Korea is no longer capable of launching a nuclear strike against the US mainland. The US may have halted its military exercises with South Korea, but what effect the summit agreement may have, if any, for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile defence system, which has also been a concern of China and Russia, is yet to be clarified.
- Having signed the document and with the economic sanctions against it remaining in place, North Korea will be wondering if giving away its only strategic leverage was too big a gamble. From the perspective of an analyst, it looks too good to be true. It remains to be seen, however, if China will actually allow Kim to be stripped of all nukes. Kim can claim some points for getting President Trump to talk to him, even if through nuclear blackmail. If nothing else, that will enhance his credibility domestically, as well as in the global arena.
- China, in an attempt to highlight its influence, talked of its efforts in getting the two leaders together but, in a subtle message, has indirectly shown concern about the continued security and safety of North Korea. Kim had consulted with President Xi Jinping twice before the summit, but it is not known if the document signed is as per the narrative of President Xi or at least meets with his approval. China will also be concerned about THAAD and the continuation of sanctions, which leave ambiguity in its trading relationship with North Korea.
- Japan will continue to be sceptical about North Korea because, even if Pyongyang does denuclearise, the threat of conventional missile strikes will continue to loom over its territory, notwithstanding a remark by President Trump that Kim has agreed to close a missile testing site.
- South Korea will be happy because its efforts to bring the two leaders to the table have finally borne fruit, and the summit is a sign of progress. The South will genuinely be looking for peace, as Seoul is within easy reach of conventional North Korean weaponry.
- Russia, too, will have to wait for the clarification of future THAAD deployment, a concern that it has aired previously.
- India will welcome a peaceful Korean Peninsula, but will be keen for enough control to be retained over North Korea so as to prevent the potential proliferation of missile technology to Pakistan.
Exactly what the post-summit future holds for the Korean Peninsula is not clear, but it was nonetheless a commendable diplomatic breakthrough after decades of hostility, even though there is no guarantee that North Korea will actually comply with any undertakings. Of great interest, too, was the sight of the two unpredictable leaders conducting themselves with grace and maturity in a well-choreographed event.
A future point to watch will be the US response, after the display of such niceties between the two heads of state, to any possible breaking of the sanctions by a third country. The final test, of course, will be the level of commitment by North Korea to the actual details of the agreement – which are still to be established – and its response to the scrutiny of its nuclear capabilities by international inspectors.