Willful suspension of disbelief
*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego.
If we look at the Singapore summit using standard diplomatic metrics, it was a profound embarrassment. Nonetheless, it was a success in one important respect: that it happened at all. The only appropriate stance is what Samuel Coleridge once called “the willing suspension of disbelief,” to pretend for the moment that the surreal is in fact plausible.
The mood about the summit is quite different in South Korea and the United States, as the recent elections in Korea demonstrated. Support for President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to get to Singapore is generally high. The opposition has been marginalized. Among analysts in the United States, though, the concerns outlined in my preview of the summit remain. Mainly, its concrete achievements have been wildly oversold. At the risk of appearing ungrateful, let me outline the general concerns.
The summit document is not only short and vague but suggests that the North Korean team won the battle over the agenda. The substance is contained in four bullet points: improving the North-U.S. relationship; working toward a peace regime; denuclearization; and return of soldiers’ remains, in this order. It has always been the North Korean position that its nuclear program is the result of the United States’ “hostile policy” and the absence of a peace treaty rather than the other way around. The agenda is basically Kim Jong-un’s.
The short sentence on denuclearization is loaded with ambiguity. Despite assurances from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the joint statement does not contain a clear North Korean commitment to denuclearization. North Korea will “work toward” denuclearization, a victory for the incremental, “words for words, action for action” concept of negotiation that Pyongyang has long favored. The reference to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” is also North Korean language.
The biggest surprise of the summit, however, came not in the statement but in Trump’s news conference. The United States and South Korea will have to make concessions to North Korea to move negotiations along, and the exercises are one place where deals might be struck. But there is little evidence that Trump got anything for the promise to cancel them.
Moreover, his animus against the alliance was on full display. Not only did he repeat his critical comments about U.S. treaty commitments, he did so while praising Kim Jong-un and without prior consultation with Seoul. It took a week before South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense would announce that the agreement to cancel the August exercises had in fact been reached. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has always insisted that troop commitments and exercises are an issue for Washington and Seoul to decide, not for bilateral bargaining between the United States and North Korea. Yet the summit news conference suggested quite the opposite.
The summit raised questions about the larger diplomatic setting as well and the role that China and Russia will play. In effect, the summit can be read as a victory for Beijing’s “freeze for freeze” proposal, an initiative that the United States has long viewed with skepticism. In effect, the United States and South Korea will now suspend legitimate defensive measures, while North Korea continues to suspend testing of weapons systems that the United Nations Security Council has repeatedly proscribed.
An apparent sideshow, the issue of the return of American remains, also deserves mention. Emotional issues such as abductees, family reunions and the remains of those killed in battle have to be treated with delicacy. Yet we also have to be clear-eyed about their broader significance. Trump has since appealed to his base by trumpeting the “win” of getting remains returned. But the North Koreans will now portray this as a concession, as they shamelessly do with North-South family reunions as well.
A final point to note about the summit is the way Trump has talked about it since. In his mind, the problem is now solved, and he has used that language. North Korea is no longer a threat. Everyone knows, however, that we are effectively at square one, with all of the difficult negotiations lying ahead. Pompeo has a perfectly competent team. Will it be able to aggressively pursue negotiations, or will Trump’s interest in the details ultimately wane, generating future crises when it is revealed that the North Koreans have done precious little?
With all of these negatives, why should we suspend disbelief? Because there is at least a possibility that the stars can align around a fundamental shift on the peninsula. President Moon has remained firm on the centrality of the nuclear issue, despite pressure within his own coalition to make material concessions to the North. China’s support for sanctions is less clear, but the third Xi-Kim summit suggested that Beijing remains committed to denuclearization and wants to see greater emphasis from Pyongyang on economic reform. And the United States has a team in place that is well-versed in the technical issues which will be the guts of the negotiations, such as verification and ultimate dismantlement.
Yet the biggest reason to move forward is that we don’t really know where Kim Jong-un stands. Indeed, he himself may not know either. That he will try to hold on to his nuclear weapons as long as possible must be assumed. That he could in fact shift course is also not impossible and no doubt will prove a difficult process for him to negotiate internally. Unless there is a better alternative on the table, the negotiations that will now involve most centrally the United States, South and North Korea should be allowed to play out. All of the criticisms aside, I don’t see the other options.