SEOUL, South Korea — Even Kim Jong Un acknowledged how bizarre the situation was. Sitting before a crowd of news cameras, the North Korean leader joked to President Donald Trump that their Singapore meeting must look like a “fantasy or science fiction movie.” That was the first of many endearing, strange and sensational details to emerge from a historic summit that, despite the hoards of international reporters, largely took place behind closed doors.
“It’s an important day,” said C. Harrison Kim, a North Korea expert and assistant professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “I think June 12, 2018 will be remembered as a major moment for global politics and world history.”
Trump, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are now celebrating a victory: North Korea and the U.S. signed a joint declaration that promises total denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, shared goals of “lasting and stable peace” and the returned remains of U.S. prisoners of war or missing-in-action soldiers. In exchange, the U.S. has promised “security assurances,” notably including the end of its joint military exercises with South Korea, a concession that Trump later revealed in a post-summit press conference.
“This isn’t the past — this isn’t another administration that never got it started and therefore never got it done,” Trump said at a press conference, throwing shade at both the Obama and Clinton administrations. Trump even had an added bonus: “Chairman Kim has told me that North Korea is already destroying a major missile engine testing site,” he said. “That’s not in your signed document.”
In South Korea, the past two summits have felt like a geopolitical Super Bowl. Some 31% of televisions in Seoul were tuned in watch Trump and Kim face off in Singapore, with national newspapers reporting vivid play-by-plays of their 12-second handshake and “tense” and “nervous” expressions. Coca-Cola designed commemorative “peace” cans, as if it were Christmas, and crowds swarmed TV screens in Seoul Station to catch mere seconds of Kim and Trump walking together. But as both world leaders fly back to their home countries, experts are left to wonder this: Is there really any concrete plan for peace, let alone denuclearization?
“This is not a good joint document at all. It’s a very blurred, symbolic document with many missing parts. When I first heard [about it], I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” said Jang Ji-hyang, a North Korea expert and the Seoul-based director of the Middle East and North Africa Center at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “This could be the worst scenario for the Trump denuclearization model.”
No concrete steps
The U.S.-North Korea summit was fairly short: Trump and Kim stood in front of a row of flags, straight-faced, and shook hands for a photo opp before a private, 45-minute meeting accompanied only by two translators. The two leaders emerged for the cameras again for a few seconds and then dove into a second meeting with a larger group of advisers. There was a lunch of beef short rib confit and a ceremonious document signing — all of this by 3:00 p.m. Once Kim left the summit, Trump was visibly tired and nervous at his press conference, standing before an auditorium of reporters and remarking how “uncomfortable” he was. When questions about the finer details of a denuclearization agreement started to come in, the U.S. president hardly had an answer.
“We have the framework to get ready to denuclearize. He’s denuking the whole place,” he said. “I think he’s going to start now.”
For South Korea and the U.S., the problem has always been whether or not they can trust North Korea. Trump originally set high expectations for the summit, which were dialed back later, and publicly said he’s relying on his intuition to guide him. Now, it’s no wonder why some experts are worried. The U.S. president is celebrating a declaration that has no clear timeline or steps toward denuclearization. In other words, there’s no proof that Kim’s end of the deal is genuine or another diplomatic bluff. The world just has to take Trump’s word for it.
“How can we verify that North Korea completely denuclearizes, or that Kim really has a commitment to do so? And what if Kim Jong Un doesn’t do it — what kind of incentives or punishment do we have planned,” Jang said. “We don’t really have a substantial outcome from the summit today. Maybe [Kim and Trump] need to meet again.”
Trump said that economic sanctions against North Korea will continue to exist until there is irreversible, verifiable proof that denuclearization has begun. But denuclearization itself is an incredibly complicated process that takes months or years to complete, even when the give-and-take trust building between the U.S., North Korea and South Korea is linear and clear.
The U.S has signed a similar agreement with North Korea before called the 1994 Agreed Framework, and it fell apart when the U.S. was slow to give promised aid and when North Korea kept advancing its nuclear program in secret. Some even believe that North Korea will never truly change its stance, even with security guarantees.
“I don’t think [the Americans] can expect too much because North Korea is very unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons,” said Peter Ward, a Seoul-based columnist at NK News and a former researcher at the Asan Institute. “North Korea has a job to do. That’s to survive. Denuclearization is probably the first step on the road of total destruction of the regime.”
Jang said Kim is putting on a show for his regime’s security, stability and survival. “The main audience for this is his surrounding elites in North Korea,” she added. “He just wanted to give this scene of shaking hands with Trump to their entire population — to show that he is working hard.”
The summit went incredibly well, or terribly — it just depends on who you ask. North Korean human rights advocates are likely the most disappointed; despite repeated questions from reporters, Trump only vaguely stated that he mentioned human rights abuses to Kim and said that “nuclear is always number one.”
“I don’t think the White House was ever too concerned about it, and neither was South Korea,” C. Harrison Kim said. “My observation has been that states don’t handle human rights very much at all. … I think there’s a tacit agreement that they leave it to the U.N.”
Still, history is being made
Even if it only amounted to a painfully vague action plan, the U.S.-North Korea summit did show some subtle signs that Kim is willing to depart from previous North Korean rulers’ closed-off, deceptive leadership style.
Kim Jong Un has already differentiated himself from his father, after all: He was educated in Switzerland as a child and traveled outside of North Korea several times in recent months, including two trips to China and one to the Demilitarized Zone for the inter-Korean summit on April 27.
“Is Kim Jong Un fundamentally different from his predecessors and the party? Probably not. But his approach and language is different,” C. Harrison Kim said. “Kim Jong Il never left the country by plane. And here Kim Jong Un is, going to Singapore and praising its capitalist, commercial achievements.”
“It’s remarkable,” Ward said. “Theres a level of frankness about how rich Singapore is and how Kim Jong Un is sort of benchmarking it. It sounds like Kim is saying, ‘the Singaporean model is the model I’m interested in — the direction I’m interested in taking my country in.’”
At this point, the Korean Peninsula is at a crossroads: Either a step-by-step denuclearization deal will be carefully planned and executed, or it will fall apart and reveal itself to be mere hype. Trump said that he’ll meet National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo next week to plan out the finer details of a denuclearization agreement, and he made an off-the-cuff remark to reporters that he would be open to inviting Kim Jong Un to Washington.
“It really feels like some kind of closure is beginning to happen,” C. Harrison Kim said. “Hostility, tension — maybe those things are beginning to fade. Despite the histories and the personalities of the current leadership, there is some hope for the future.”