*The author is a senior columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.
North Korea has proven indefatigable at the negotiating table. Despite all the towering advantages of the world’s greatest superpower against the world’s most impoverished and reclusive state, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stole the show from U.S. President Donald Trump during their historic summit meeting in Singapore.
Trump and his delegation arrived at the Capella Hotel with stern and stoic expressions. Before the meeting, they had talked tough, with Trump even briefly calling off the planned summit. Washington made clear that the goal was complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID).
But as the day progressed in meticulously choreographed fashion, the two showmen shared handshakes, strolls and grins, culminating in a tantalizing signing ceremony where they declared a “historic” deal that would change the world.
The hype quickly died down. Their joint statement had none of the expected elements, including the precise phrase CVID, which North Korea resisted from the beginning. Pyongyang insists denuclearization will take place at its own pace, on its own schedule. Kim came out as the obvious winner.
The nemesis believed to be brutal enough to kill his own uncle and half brother delivered a stunning transformation. He was called “clever,” “worthy” and “honorable” by Trump, who only last year mocked him as “little rocket man.” Kim presented himself with confidence and style against one of the most assertive leaders in the world, and he was eloquent.
“The past chained our ankles,” he said, “and the prejudice and customs have at times hid our eyes and ears. We have overcome all that.”
“A prelude to peace,” he told the world while sitting next to Trump. “The world is about to see a significant change.”
In contrast, Trump was all praise and apparently indulged in his own feat of having led the world’s most secluded man out of his Hermit Kingdom. He was like the producer of a show — not a deal — of the century.
A handshake between the two leaders suddenly defrosted the ice of 70 years. Kim’s language gained more upper hand as the day progressed. Trump, who had lobbed menacing verbal attacks last year, was humble.
The outcome was heavily tilted. The joint statement vowed commitment to complete denuclearization minus any details, including a timetable. Experts say the statement even fell short of the joint declaration made after the Six-Party Talks on Sept. 19, 2005. Yet the United States promised security guarantees the young North Korean leader, something his father and grandfather never achieved in their lifetimes.
What Trump said afterward was more confounding. He said there wasn’t enough time to include CVID in the joint statement and added that the denuclearization process would take a long time. Robert Gallucci, who negotiated a deal in 1994 to freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear program, called the CVID concept a “political pile of crap.”
“I don’t see anything as irreversible,” he said. “You can never take away from North Korea its latent, recess capability to build nuclear weapons.”
Nuclear weapons are North Korea’s “sword of justice” that gives it control over the Northeast Asian order despite its pitiful economic presence. What North Korea envisions is nuclear-leveraged peace. It offers to dismantle and then gets rewards in the process.
Trump warned the North Koreans that they only had one shot. He somehow let them get away with ruining his famous deal-making reputation.
In October, Trump made clear he would be different with North Korea. He said the regime had violated agreements before and made “fools” of U.S. negotiators over the last 25 years. The so-called fools he was referring to are Gallucci and Christopher Hill, chief U.S. negotiator for North Korea under President George W. Bush. His secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, can now join the list.
On the day before the summit, Pompeo assured that CVID was the only option that Washington would agree to. Trump has the utmost confidence in Pompeo, who graduated first in his class at West Point and was a top student at Harvard Law. His brain, however, was no match against a veteran intelligence officer, Kim Yong-chol, who had decades of negotiating experience.
After the summit, Trump indicated a suspension of joint military exercises, calling them “very expensive” and “provocative.” His comments threaten the longstanding legacy of the South-U.S. alliance.
Military exercises are pivotal to the alliance, but Trump addresses the traditional relationship in the context of money, as he does with everything. To him, the United States and universal standards have no meaning. America First applies to the security and economic front.
Although a drawdown won’t take place for now, Trump did say he wants to bring American troops home. If negotiations lead to ending the armistice and, officially, the Korean War, U.S. troops may be scaled down, or their mandate might change.
The order of the Korean Peninsula has been swept in turmoil. We have to adapt fast to the new environment. We must train ourselves against a potential future without a U.S. military presence. The people must be ready to stand up and fight for their country.
The elections this week wiped out South Korea’s conservative front. Whether they can recover from their utter defeat is unknown. Before the North-U.S. summit, President Moon Jae-in said “We must never forget that we play the leading role in the affairs of the Korean Peninsula.” That has become a reality for everyone on this land.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 14, Page 31