August 20, 2019
August 20, 2019


Opinion on the latest North Korea issues from analysts, academics and experts worldwide. Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own.

Was that it? The remarkably nebulous Singapore agreement
Was that it? The remarkably nebulous Singapore agreement
Trump had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to extract concessions from Pyongyang - and he blew it
June 13th, 2018

So, the eagerly awaited first ever U.S.-DPRK summit is over: it took less than six hours for President Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un to complete their meetings.

As President Trump headed to the summit, he promised that the results would be “wonderful.” Indeed, they are, in a sense: every North Korean watcher wonders what might have happened to bring about such a truly unremarkable outcome.

Well, what have the two sides agreed on? The short answer is: pretty much nothing. The final statement is devoid of any references to concrete measures and largely consists of nebulous declarations.

The first of the four articles of the joint statement stated that the two would “commit to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.”

This statement might indicate that the U.S. and DPRK are going to establish formal diplomatic relations, but also might mean nothing in particular.

Both sides also promised that they “will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” This could be interpreted as a hint to some end-of-war declaration or even a peace treaty, even though a formal peace treaty is unlikely to be signed, given that the Korean War was a curious legal mess.

Yes, North Korea publicly confirmed its commitment to eventual denuclearization. However, it makes sense to remind readers that all “officially recognized” nuclear powers, including the U.S. and China, expressed such commitments as early as 1968.

Months of preparations, near-unprecedented blackmail and saber-rattling, and dozens of high-profile (or top secret) visits have ended up producing almost nothing

There is no reference to Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID), which for long time has been presented as the only final outcome acceptable to the U.S. government. Instead, it is stated that “the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

The final article says that sides will continue the search for the remains of U.S. soldiers and MIAs. This promise might resonate well in the hearts of American patriots, but the rest of us will have to try hard to appreciate the significance of such a search in the context of global security.

Kim Jong Un will be emboldened by this deal | Photo: Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES

Is that all? Not exactly, since during the press conference which followed the signing President Trump also mentioned that the U.S. would suspend regular joint military exercises with South Korea. Given that for a long time such drills have annoyed the North Koreans, as well as the fact that without the exercises the level of military preparedness will fall, this was a major concession as well.

It was the only significant concession which was declared on the day of the summit – and, tellingly enough, it was done by the Americans.


What does it all mean? Months of preparations, near-unprecedented blackmail and saber-rattling, and dozens of high-profile (or top secret) visits have ended up producing almost nothing, an agreement which cannot even be seen as a road map for the future developments. At best, it is a declaration of intentions, and even in the context of other such declarations it is vague and imprecise.

Of course, there was no reason to expect that the promised “unwavering” commitment of the U.S. side to CVID would bear fruit: CVID is, and has always been, a dead end in the nuclear diplomacy with North Korea.

The North Koreans will never surrender their nuclear weapons, and it is strange that some otherwise sane people have sometimes expressed doubts about this geopolitical fact: the DPRK elite sincerely believes that without nuclear weapons it is doomed. Given recent events (above all, of course, the sorry fate of Colonel Qaddafi) one must to admit that this perception is not unfounded.  

But there were ample reasons to hope that the summit, aside from the photo ops and self-aggrandizing tweets, would produce something tangible. While North Korean leaders, if facing a choice between CVID and war, would likely choose war, they are willing to talk about arms control and arms reduction.

Their willingness to cooperate dramatically increased in recent months, when Pyongyang’s “Washington watchers” somewhat belatedly realized that they were dealing with an unusual U.S. president – a man who might be willing to start a military conflict even if this meant a risk of escalation.

Even more skeptical observers expected that Singapore summit would deliver a deal which would seriously limit the North Koreans’ ability to further advance their nuclear and missile program

They entered negotiations to win time, but they were also willing to sacrifice a lot: to make concessions to ensure that the U.S. would not deliver a “bloody nose” strike and would also somewhat relax increasingly suffocating economic sanctions.


The last five months have seen many North Korean concessions, often significant and always unilateral.

Throughout this time, Pyongyang has introduced a unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests and missile launches, returned three American detainees, destroyed the tunnels at its old nuclear testing site, and even already theoretically committed itself to the denuclearization.

Once the U.S. President threatened to cancel the summit in May, the North Korean side immediately reacted, sending a nearly apologetic letter. When Rudy Giuliani recently said that North Korean leader “begged on his hands and knees” to get a summit, the former NYC mayor was comically and grossly undiplomatic, but in a sense he expressed the impression everybody had in early June.

Against this background, even more skeptical observers expected that Singapore summit would deliver a massive deal which would seriously limit the North Koreans’ ability to further advance their nuclear and missile program. There was widespread expectation that Pyongyang would agree to dismantle some vital elements of its vast nuclear and missile production complex: like, say, to stop and disable a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor or, perhaps, getting rid of centrifuges used to enrich uranium.

Concrete steps towards denuclearization are lacking | Photo: Rodong Sinmun

Inspections of known nuclear sites were almost universally expected, too, and more optimistic observers even expected that North Koreans would ship some of their existent nuclear devises outside the country for safe-keeping.

All these measures would not have amounted to full denuclearization, but, if implemented, they would have seriously restricted North Korea’s ability to blackmail and threaten its neighbors.

Nothing of this happened, however.

Of course, one can argue that the Singapore declaration is merely the “first step on the long road to nuclear disarmament.” But even if this is the case, this alleged ‘first step’ is remarkably small – almost invisible – even though it was made under the most favorable conditions imaginable.


One wonders whether the U.S. administration is going to keep a high level of pressure to get more from Pyongyang – especially now, when the North Korean negotiators have good reason to feel emboldened by their success.

It will not help that South Korea is now under control of a government which is very eager to engage North Korea (at the taxpayer’s expense, of course) and China, increasingly unhappy about tariff wars, is considering whether it should continue to maintain the united front with the U.S. on the North Korean issue.

North Korean negotiators have good reason to feel emboldened by their success

Conditions for getting necessary concessions from North Korea might being lost forever. This author has no idea why the U.S. President, being in such an advantageous negotiating position and enjoying an unprecedented level of support from the world – including rivals such as China and Russia – returns from Singapore empty-handed. But this is what has happened – and for decades historians will argue about the why and how of this remarkable debacle.

There is one silver lining: a flawed summit is still better than the militaristic and mindless sable-rattling we saw in 2017. However imperfect, the summit helps to reduce the chances of a war in Korea which, for a while, appeared very high.

It was not a complete failure, but the summit could easily have delivered ten times more than it actually did.

Edited by Oliver Hotham

Featured image: Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES

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