That was a surprise. The Sentosa Island summit on 12 June between President Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong-un produced an undramatic yet hopeful agreement. Quite a turn-up for the books, coming from two leaders famed for unpredictability. But components of the summit outside of the signed agreement showed Trump continuing to be a disruptor in world politics.
In the agreement
The agreement reads like an act of highly orthodox diplomacy. Its core is headline agreement on four points:
- “New U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.”
- The aim of building “a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”
- Commitment by the DPRK “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
- Agreement to recover the remains of Prisoners of War and servicemen Missing in Action from the Korean War.
None of the details of what this means are clear or have been settled. Neither the substance of a peace settlement nor the definition of “denuclearisation” when applied to the Korean Peninsula as a whole has been agreed. The DPRK side seems to have successfully insisted that denuclearisation applies not just to them but the whole peninsula. That can be interpreted different ways in practice – to include or not include port visits by nuclear-armed vessels or flights by nuclear bombers in South Korean airspace, for example? The timeline has not been fixed either, the date by which denuclearisation and a peace settlement should happen. Nor has the sequence been fixed: of items 2 and 3, which comes first or is it both together?
Arguably, this vagueness is exactly what was needed at this point. Among the fears about what could go wrong with the Sentosa summit was the thought that the US side would aim for too much too soon and in the process blow the chance of negotiations out of the water. Arguably, what leaders should do is set goals and the general terms of what is to happen. It is for senior officials – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a DPRK counterpart who was not named in the signed agreement – and their staffs to get on with hammering out the details over the coming few years.
That is, you could say, how diplomacy works. You might get impatient because it is often slow work but the principle is that an epoch-shaping agreement should be durable, which makes it worth being painstaking about it. Not rushing it makes for a good start. The lack of specificity in the agreement allows it to be a rough road map. At this stage, so early in the easing of relations between the two countries, that is about right.
Not in the agreement
So far, so very unexceptional. Breathe a sigh of relief at diplomatic convention reasserting itself. Be fair and acknowledge that this is not unhopeful, not at all.
And then take a look at a couple of other things. First, consider the video Trump apparently played for Kim and then showed to the press conference afterwards. Let’s pass over the oddity of presenting it as the work of a real film company that didn’t make it, and hurdle on to 1 minute and 35 seconds into the clip:
“Two men, two leaders, one destiny”: throughout the build-up to the summit one of the questions many observers asked was whether the summit would give Kim Jong-un, even if only fleetingly, equal status on the world stage with the leader of the superpower US. The answer is, Yes.
That could be thought of as an interesting approach to negotiating. But there is more.
During the press conference, Trump announced that joint US military exercises with South Korea would be stopped. They are, he said, both expensive and provocative. There has been quite some media and political comment about the use of the word “provocative” for there is a history to it. That is what DPRK has long said about the regular joint exercises, calling them rehearsals of invasion, labels the US and South Korea have long refused to accept. The exercises were delayed earlier this year so as to not to get in the way of the Olympic diplomacy. There has been discussion of reducing their scale as a goodwill gesture but as recently as May the Trump administration categorically ruled that option out.
A reduction in scale, further delay or change in the substance of the exercises would have been a confidence-building concession to the DPRK leadership, let alone wholly ending (or is it only suspending?) them. And Trump went even further by calling the exercises “provocative”, effectively adopting the DPRK’s vocabulary in this respect.
It was not expected that he would go so far but it may well help US-DPRK diplomacy, help ease the way along the road the agreement roughs out.
However, the President also commented about cost-sharing for the exercises. It comes at 24 minutes and 30 seconds into the clip:
Trump argues that Seoul doesn’t pay a fair share and that this needs to be discussed in the context of both the expense and “the trade” and he remarks that the US needs to talk to many countries about treating it fairly. There’s a context to this, of course. Trump is imposing extra tariffs on various imports from major trading partners. There are plentiful worries about an imminent trade war. The issue dominated the end of the G7 summit in Quebec just before the Sentosa meeting. It gives a flavour to the President’s remarks about Seoul and the military exercises he is discontinuing.
It might just be free-wheeling thought, free association. It might also be considered an interesting approach to alliance. It is one thing to boost the adversary’s confidence, another to do so at the expense of potentially disconcerting the ally.
Within the agreement, there’s an orthodox and reassuring diplomatic normality. Outside the agreement, the enthusiasm of the movie and the roughness around stopping the military exercises were unorthodox and disrupted expectation. Each element was a surprise and the melange even more so. Until further notice, we should continue to expect the unexpected.
But – and this is a huge but – none of this weakens the point that the agreement that has come out of the Sentosa summit does offer a way forward. It is important to retain a clear sense that the deals that are needed to bring peace and security to the Korean Peninsula are going to be complex. But they can be done.