By Michael Pearson
The Singapore summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was a good start for the international effort to peacefully end North Korea’s nuclear program, but a long and uncertain road remains ahead, according to two Georgia Institute of Technology experts in global nuclear security.
In a joint statement issued at the end of their June 12, 2018 meeting in Singapore, Trump and Kim said North Korea had pledged to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” but did not provide any specific details.
Here is what Rachel Whitlark, an assistant professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and Margaret E. Kosal, an associate professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, had to say about the summit’s outcome:
Whitlark: “A positive start”
“Certainly, Tuesday's events are helpful for continuing to ease tensions,” said Whitlark, who specializes in international security and foreign policy decision-making, including nuclear proliferation, counter-proliferation, and military intervention.
“Still, we should see this as the very beginning of a very long and complex process and it's not clear anything substantive will actually result from it,” she said.
In fact, she said, there’s even a risk that Trump’s surprise announcement that the U.S. would halt joint military exercises with South Korea could force Japan or South Korea to seek their own nuclear force to counter North Korea’s, should a deal fail to materialize.
The decision risks weakening the U.S. position in East Asia, which would allow China to step into a security vacuum there, she said.
“It's also strange because the North hadn't been publicly pushing for this recently so it seems to me like a concession the U.S. did not need to make,” she said.
North Korea previously has made promises similar to those in the joint statement, Whitlark said, most notably in 1994 when the country agreed to specifics such as ending plutonium production and a verification regime. Such items that were absent from Tuesday’s statement.
“So, in this sense, Trump got a whole lot less than his predecessors,” said Whitlark.
"Between getting the United States to halt the joint exercises and the legitimation that comes from even meeting the sitting U.S. president, the summit appears to be a strategic victory for the North," Whitlark said. "This is especially the case considering that, to date, they've actually not given anything up despite receiving a sizable amount in return."
Kosal: ‘Talking with enemies is better than not talking with them’
“The Singapore statement is weaker than any language since 1991 that has involved the U.S. and North Korea,” said Kosal, whose expertise is in national security and foreign policy with an emphasis efforts to reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction, among other issues.
“Getting something signed is the easy part,” she said. “The hard work of implementation, execution, and verification is where the real metaphorical rubber meets the road ... what really matters.”
She said issues surrounding verification will make or break any detailed agreement on nuclear weapons held by North Korea, which is also known by the formal name of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea, or DPRK.
“Given the DPRK's track record, one should be very careful exercising an iota of trust,” she said, “Look for binding verification.” Negotiators must also seek to address North Korea’s offensive chemical and biological weapons programs, according to Kosal.
Kosal said the U.S. decision to halt military exercises with South Korean forces will result in reduced readiness that benefits North Korea.
She also warned that the goal frequently stated by Trump administration officials — the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” is interpreted more broadly in North Korea than the elimination of its own nuclear weapons.
“To them, it also means the Republic of Korea and Japan no longer under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and an end to U.S. military command and control over Korean forces in wartime,” she said.