June 12, 2018. This date will hopefully go down in history as the day the United States formally initiated bilateral efforts with North Korea to bring long-lasting peace to the Korean Peninsula. From throwing insults at each other to cancelling the planned bilateral summit, the two leaders were finally able to have their first face-to-face meeting. What was unthinkable just a few months ago has now become a reality, and, for that, the world should be celebrating this remarkable, albeit small, first step in what could lead to mutually beneficial outcomes for all parties concerned.
US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed a joint declaration pledging to establish peace on and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. The meeting between both leaders was held Tuesday morning at Singapore’s Capella hotel on Sentosa Island. Although their encounter started with a serious photograph, the mood soon lightened as handshakes, hugs, and compliments were exchanged.
Both leaders seemed to have walked away feeling accomplished. Trump called the declaration a “very comprehensive” document and referred to his meeting with Kim as “honest, direct and productive.” The US President did, however, make clear that economic sanctions against North Korea will remain in place until tangible steps are taken toward the North’s disarmament.
The joint declaration was short and concise, mentioning only four key points to which the two leaders would agree to:
- The establishment of new US-DPRK relations.
- Joint US-DPRK efforts to establish long-lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.
- DPRK reaffirms its commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
- US-DPRK commitment to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.
The document further called for follow-up negotiations between the two parties to implement the outcomes of the summit.
The apparent vagueness of the document resulted in a flurry of criticism against Trump’s alleged ‘hasty’ decision in taking part in the summit and as such giving Kim the equal platform he has been wanting for so long. Nevertheless, Trump refuses to see his taking part in the summit as a concession. On the contrary, he stated that “if I have to say I’m sitting on a stage with Chairman Kim and that’s going to get us to save 30 million lives, could be more than that, I’m willing to sit on the stage”–referring to the 30 million lives that could be lost in the event of a war with North Korea.
Many also criticized the meeting’s apparent disregard for human rights issues. They see Trump’s treatment of Kim as an equal as legitimizing his regime which is reportedly responsible for a vast array of human rights abuses. Trump’s treatment of Kim as an equal could thus send a message to other similar authoritarian leaders that the United States main concern isn’t related to human rights as much as to security matters.
Moreover, the US made a significant concession which will please both North Korea and China. Trump called for an end to the US-ROK military exercises, which he referred to as “war games” and called “very provocative,” “inappropriate” and “tremendously expensive.” During his press conference later that day, Trump further elaborated on his decision by saying that: “[…] under the circumstances that we are negotiating a very comprehensive, complete deal, I think it’s inappropriate to be having war games.”
Both NK and China have been pushing for such a move for a long time and such a move by the US would mean a big win for both countries. China will especially welcome the decision since the “deal” that Trump and Kim agreed to is essentially the “freeze-for-freeze” arrangement that was originally put forth by Beijing.
The move also came as a surprise to Seoul as they didn’t expect Trump to make such a bold move so early on. Still, the South Korean government will try to address this issue carefully given the amount of effort President Moon has put into making this US-DPRK summit happen. Moreover, such a decision is easily reversible and Trump may decide to restart the military drills if negotiations with Pyongyang stagnate.
The choice of Singapore as the summit venue was a strategic one; not only is it geographically close to North Korea but the small island offers Kim a view of how his country might potentially look if it opened up to the world. Kim was able to experience Singapore’s impressive sights and infrastructure himself while doing some sightseeing on the night before the summit. The North Korean leader even took a selfie with Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung.
— Vivian Balakrishnan (@VivianBala) June 11, 2018
President Trump went one step further in trying to show Kim a possible alternative future for his country. Trump showed the North Korean delegation a short video – which was later shown at the press conference – laying out two possibilities for North Korea’s future. One vision depicted an economically mighty country enjoying all the technological advancements available today, while the other showed a more sombre image of a devastated, war-torn nation. The choice was clear; denuclearize and open up your economy or continue down the same self-destructive path as before and face true ‘fire and fury’.
During his press conference later that day, Trump further elaborated on his vision for a modern North Korea by looking at it from a “real-estate perspective.” He explained: “As an example, they have great beaches. You see that whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean, right? I said, “Boy, look at that place, wouldn’t that make a great condo?” And I explained it, I said, “Instead of doing that, you could have the best hotels in the world right there.”
Think that sounds crazy? It does, but it’s far from impossible. North Korea is being given the chance to follow the economic example of its southern neighbour and truly evolve into a strong economy. South Korea’s per capita GDP was a mere $158 in 1960, ten years after the Korean War broke out. Today, however, the country boasts the 12th largest economy in the world and enjoyed a GDP per capita of $27,538 in 2016. That’s more than a 170x increase in less than sixty years. No wonder they call it the Miracle on the Han River.
The reason this is relevant today is because North Korea is currently standing at an economic crossroads. If they keep up their aggressive stance, the economic sanctions will continue cutting into the nation’s already weak economy and this, paired with political isolation, would lead to the eventual implosion of the regime or to offensive military action on their part; neither a desirable outcome.
The current political dynamic with South Korea and the US, however, serve as a golden opportunity for Kim to save his country. North Korea’s GDP – as estimated by the CIA – is around $1700; more than ten times that of South Korea’s when they embarked on their economic reforms. Thus, it’s worth thinking if South Korea could do it then, under such circumstances, then why wouldn’t North Koreans – with a young labour force, rich in natural resources, with a country not decimated by war, and neighbours willing to cooperate – be able to achieve a similar feat? They can, and if Kim plays it smart, they most definitely will.
“The past does not have to define the future. Yesterday’s conflict does not have to be tomorrow’s war. And as history has proven over and over again, adversaries can indeed become friends.” Trump’s word’s should not be taken lightly and maximum effort must be directed towards making diplomacy work. What happened on Tuesday was not a deal, a treaty, or a strong legally binding document that will ensure that North Korea denuclearizes, but it was the necessary first step. Only an uninformed observer would expect much more from the North Koreans during their first meeting with the nation they have considered to be their biggest enemy since their country’s inception in 1948.
The issue now remains of verifying Pyongyang’s steps towards denuclearization. We’ve been here before, and an agreement between the US and the DPRK has yet to deliver long-term positive outcomes. Kim and Trump have an opportunity to truly make history, not just for themselves – which, of course, is a huge incentive for both – but for their people and indeed the world. A nuclear Korean Peninsula poses a threat to regional and global stability and must thus be dealt with as a major priority.
If Trump truly is the master deal-maker he says he is, he will be able to convince the North Korean regime that denuclearization, modernization, and the opening up of its economy to global trade is not only the right thing to do but the key to making North Korea a strong global player – which was what the Kim’s have always wanted. A politically stable, non-threatening, economically open North Korea will then further pave the way towards a unified nation with the potential of boasting one of the strongest economies on earth.