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June 13, 2018

Trump-Kim summit


June 13, 2018

Less than a year ago, as US President Donald Trump was threatening to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was calling Trump a “mentally deranged dotard” one could scarcely have imagined that the two leaders would be holding friendly talks in Singapore. The joint statement signed by Trump and Kim provides a framework which can be used as the starting point for a more durable peace. The statement calls upon both countries to establish new and improved relations, to work together for peace, to recover the remains of prisoners of war and those who went missing in action during the Korean War and to commit to the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. Such an agreement, while impressive, is not unprecedented. In fact, previous peace talks between the US and North Korea in the 1990s and 2000s reached similar understandings. But the Singapore meeting was still a landmark as it resumed the peace process after it had stalled for more than a decade. It is also the first time the two countries have talked after North Korea became an established nuclear power rather than one that was in hot pursuit of nuclear technology. It is that nuclear deterrent, more than anything else, which likely brought the US to the negotiating table. It now knows that a military attack on North Korea will likely lead to a nuclear exchange and so a negotiated settlement is the only realistic option left.

Trump was in an ebullient mood at a press conference after his meeting with Kim, promising that he would invite the North Korean leader to Washington for a meeting. The rest of us shouldn’t be quite as celebratory. The deal as it stands is entirely symbolic. While symbolism does matter, the two countries are still far away from peace. The joint statement mentioned denuclearisation in the Korean peninsula but the US and North Korea have different interpretations of what that means. For the US, it would suggest North Korea destroying its nuclear weapons in a process that is overseen by independent inspectors but Kim has stated in the past that he will only consider giving up his nuclear weapons if the US does the same – something that is not going to happen. The agreement does not mention sanctions, the lifting of which may be the only leverage the US has over North Korea. If this meeting is to lead to durable peace, such matters will have to be resolved in the months ahead. The Singapore summit was an important start but most of the heavy lifting still remains.

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