North Korea has vowed to take steps towards denuclearisation, but evidence shows we shouldn’t hold our breath. The shortfalls of the summit in June leave much to be discussed at the inter-Korean summit currently being held in Pyongyang, Remy Wendel writes.
It has been three months since the historic Singapore Summit between the US and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), where a joint declaration was signed promising better US-DPRK relations and an effort to work towards the ‘complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula’. The bilateral summit was an eagerly awaited event preceded by weeks of optimism, cynicism, and high expectations. But uncertainty lingers over the effectiveness of the meeting, especially with the September summit now underway.
In June, US President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore to sign a joint statement pledging to work towards prosperous relations, a peaceful North Korean regime, and the re-establishment of the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration. The summit was a laudable show of good faith, as the two leaders had each hurled troubling threats at one another in the recent past, including Trump’s warning of unleashing ‘fire and fury’ upon the increasingly hostile North Korea.
The summit produced a statement with four key agreements:
- The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new US-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
- The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
- Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
- The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.
Moreover, in a post-meeting press conference, Trump swore to halt military operations between the US and South Korea on the peninsula. These were operations that had previously frustrated the North Korean administration to the brink of igniting conflict.
This may seem like a breakthrough for US-DPRK relations, but it has disappointed optimists who hoped for a more concrete agreement to relieve the peninsula of nuclear tensions.
Although the summit puts the region in a better place compared to last year, the lack of commitment is concerning. The agreement is vague and unspecific. The lack of a timeline, the shortage of detail, and the use of phrases like ‘work toward’ and ‘commit to establish’ does not suggest that the document carries much weight. The DPRK has abandoned deals in the past that had much more at stake.
This lack of weight could explain the minimal developments following the Singapore summit. Although more negotiations are occurring between lower-ranking officials including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the question remains; two months on, what has actually changed?
The answer is worrisome. Initially, the North Korean administration showed gestures of good faith. By returning the remains of American soldiers from the Korean War, the DPRK generated optimism of what could be expected in the context of the bigger goal, the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. When this gesture was followed by the demolition of a North Korean nuclear test site and a satellite launching site in Tongchang, it seemed a significant indicator of the administration’s sincerity.
However, there has been little evidence of actual denuclearisation of the DPRK, despite Trump’s declaration that Kim Jong-un had pledged to “immediately begin [the] total denuclearisation of North Korea”. In fact, there is evidence that the DPRK has continued to advance their nuclear program by expanding a nuclear research centre in Yongbyon to construct nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Moreover, the steps that the North Korean administration have taken towards denuclearisation are all easily reversible within weeks. The demolition of the entrances to the DPRK’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site, as a show of good faith, is promptly reversible as the tunnels themselves remain undamaged. The DPRK is not prepared to fully denuclearise.
Official denuclearisation timelines presented to the DPRK by Pompeo during negotiations have also been rejected on several occasions. Accusations of ‘gangster-like demands’ show how little progress has been made to cement real change.
By antagonising the DPRK, Pompeo sets negotiations back by miles. It is a goal of the North Korean administration to be recognised as a global nuclear power by the international community after decades of sanctions and alienation. Therefore, attempting to ‘boss around’ the administration will only create further hostility.
Nonetheless, it is not all bad news. Although there is cynicism surrounding the US-DPRK relationship and the DPRK’s efforts to denuclearise, the announcement of this third inter-Korean summit is reassuring.
It is likely the Korean states will continue to discuss infrastructure projects and an official end to the Korean War. In an interview with Reuters, North Korean Studies expert Seo Yu-seok stated that “the North is asking the South to play a bridging role as they want the United States to speed up progress in declaring an end to the war officially.” We can also anticipate the Korean administrations discussing obstacles to peaceful reunification, including the denuclearisation of the peninsula.
The Singapore Summit was not as effective as all had hoped. Trump oversold the prospects of denuclearisation within the Korean Peninsula, ensuring disappointment with developments post-summit. Nevertheless, while the question of North Korean compliance lingers, there is still cause for optimism as the DPRK becomes more open to summits and meetings with the international community. Let us hold our breath that the September summit proves to be more successful than the last.
Remy Wendel is a third-year undergraduate student studying Asia-Pacific Politics, International Relations, and Global Security as part of the Bachelor of Asian Studies/Bachelor of Arts program at the Australian National University.
Feature image source: Dan Scavino Jr.