As American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travels to North Korea this week, it's easy to be cynical about the Singapore Summit. Rather than briefly suspending judgment while we see whether Singapore was the start of a "Sadat Moment" involving a momentous geopolitical shift, most commentators have been quick to focus on what wasn't immediately achieved.
The summit's official outcome—in the form of the joint declaration and public remarks by Secretary Pompeo—is short on details, especially in comparison to agreements inked by previous U.S. Administrations with North Korea. Pundits are correct to note the absence of a clear, unambiguous commitment by the North in the document to "complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization" (CVID). That said, North Korea never honored its previous written agreements with the U.S. anyway, so it is not clear that such comparisons are relevant. Instead, the question now is whether the shock and momentum generated by the Singapore summit will finally propel North Korea along the path of productive, good-faith negotiations—or not.
Short-Term Gains for North Korea
Given North Korea's track record, there is much cause to doubt Kim Jong Un's sincerity or to assume he is just focusing on immediate-term problems. Facing immense economic and political challenges under the weight of the Trump Administration's highly effective "maximum pressure" campaign, North Korea seems strongly motivated to dissipate the existing sanctions and gut the momentum for further sanctions. From this perspective, the summit has given China and South Korea a convenient excuse to dial back sanction enforcement, not to mention any sanction expansion or tightening.
Kim increased his international and domestic political stature by meeting the President of the United States as a nominal equal. Meanwhile, through his decision to suspend major exercises with South Korea, President Trump seems also to have adopted de facto the Chinese formula of a double freeze, which the U.S. had long rejected: Namely, the double freeze called for no American-South Korean military exercises in return for no North Korean missile or nuclear tests. Although technically this arrangement was phased and not officially a direct trade-off, the result is the same.
That Trump took this step without consulting or alerting Tokyo or Seoul has caused concern in both capitals. But this was tempered by South Korea lauding the exercise suspension as consonant with President Moon's soft stance toward the North—not to mention that South Korean leaders were secretly happy the U.S. did it so they didn't have to be the ones to ask. Additionally, the United States and South Korea confirmed June 19 that they are suspending this August's joint Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercise.
Kim also succeeded in creating the impression that he is deterrable—in other words, that he is not a madman prone to launching weapons of mass destruction without provocation or even reason. Ultimately, Kim would like to convince the U.S. that North Korea today resembles China in the 1960’s—working toward proportional deterrence, but not an existential threat that must be eliminated. By seeming to be reasonable and even statesmanlike, Kim successfully put a damper on any public debate, for the time being, about “bloody nose” options or regime change.
However, the key takeaway here is that Kim's achievements would rapidly evaporate should it become clear that he did not operate in good faith. If Kim were to revert to form and renege on his repeated pledges to pursue productive, good-faith negotiations for denuclearization, it should be expected that America too would reverse course. As a result of Kim's reversal, the atmosphere of good will would dissipate, and suspension of major American-South Korea exercises would be the first thing to go.
Secretary Pompeo stated publicly that “not all of that work” between the U.S. and North Korean negotiating teams “appeared in the final document” but there were “lots of other places where there were understandings reached” that were not reduced to writing.
Kim now has the opportunity to build on those understandings, and to work toward confidence building and relationship building with the United States through concrete denuclearization. If Kim persists in thinking small, the familiar historical pattern will repeat: the usual North Korean efforts to trade incremental, reversible micro-concessions for significant breathing space or irreversible concessions by America and its allies, until the jig is up.
The logical first step would be for North Korea to provide a complete accounting of its nuclear activities as a prelude to inspections and removal of nuclear materials. That is perfectly reasonable, given repeated denuclearization assurances by Kim. That said, the North Korean regime is likely to balk at providing up front a complete targeting solution of its nuclear program to the United States. Given their past behavior patterns, it is most likely that the North Koreans will stall.
But denuclearization has to start somewhere. Rather than getting bogged down with North Korean lies and stalling, one option is to get the North to start taking concrete measures, rather than just talk about them. For instance, America could propose several North Korean sites to serve as a prototype for an inspection regime, which would lead to concrete denuclearization and also serve as a confidence-building measure. One of those sites could be the missile engine testing site Kim reportedly promised to dismantle. A team of international inspectors, including U.S. experts and perhaps some from other legitimate nuclear weapon states (P-5), would move rapidly to inspect those sites to their satisfaction. The United States and North Korea would then review the experience, discuss how to improve and build upon it, and begin developing a schedule for inspecting additional sites, including especially previously undeclared ones. This schedule would also include removal of nuclear material.