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Climate change: Trump and Kim melt a Cold War glacier


Climate change: Trump and Kim melt a Cold War glacier

Kim and Trump walking to the summit room during the DPRK–USA Singapore Summit / Trump-Kim


Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un have held the first-ever meeting of a sitting US president and a North Korean leader to discuss peace and denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula.


– The US and DPRK leaders held a 41-minute one-on-one meeting before expanded bilateral talks
– President Trump committed to providing security guarantees to the DPRK
– Chairman Kim reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula
– Post-summit negotiations are confirmed; if unsuccessful, a return to a period of “maximum pressure” will be difficult without multilateral support


Twenty-five years after North Korea first committed to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un held a historic summit in Singapore. While there was much speculation about the possible outcome of the meeting, the opportunity to melt the so-called ‘last glacier of the Cold War’ saw the two leaders focus on developing rapport amidst a global spectacle of handshakes and photo opportunities. Rather than negotiating the much hoped-for denuclearisation accord, the two leaders concentrated on how to improve relations going forward. As Kim noted, “The past and the old prejudices and practices work as obstacles to our way forward but we overcame all of them and we are here today.”

While Trump was optimistic heading into negotiations, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo remained cautious, noting that it remained to be seen if Kim was genuinely committed to denuclearisation. It would seem his caution was well placed; the two leaders eventually resolved merely to improving relations with undefined commitments to denuclearisation and peace. In this sense, the summit’s agreed declarations largely subscribe to the previously agreed Panmunjom Declaration concluded at the recent summit between the leaders of North and South Korea. The apparent anti-climax did however provide details about follow-on negotiations from which to the two sides committed to implementing the outcomes of the summit.

Kim Jong-Un will be pleased with his efforts to elevate his regime’s standing within the international community. This result, however, is likely to prove disappointing for Trump who can now only hope to see real progress emerge during later talks. The surprise pledge from Trump to cease US-South Korea war games is an obvious incentive for Pyongyang to stay the course. Yet this offering from Trump, absent any obvious quid-pro-quo other than vague assurances from Kim, leaves the US in a weaker negotiating position from which to prompt real denuclearisation. As such, one wonders if Trump is not retreading the optimistic and ultimately unfruitful path of previous US administrations.


U.S. and South Korean army soldiers pose on a floating bridge on the Hantan River during a joint military exercise against a possible attack from North Korea, in Yeoncheon, South Korea, in December 2015. / Trump-Kim
Photo: AP

As has been reported in the preceding months, last week’s summit was the culmination of a long series of crises and bluster between two of the world’s most unpredictable leaders. Facing cancellation mere weeks ago, the meeting was precipitated by an escalating war of words since the commencement of the Trump presidency. Taking to Twitter in January 2017, Trump declared a red line on North Korean aggression against the US in conjunction with other more combative remarks that now stand in stark contrast to the current cordial tone.

The subsequent 18 months saw increased sanctions, “maximum pressure”, and threats of “fire and fury” issued against North Korea in an effort to maximise deterrence in the face of North Korea’s rapidly developing ballistic and nuclear capabilities. Though critics have questioned the extent to which Trump is deserving of credit for this bilateral meeting, Trump’s provocations and directives eventually gave way to a more diplomatic pursuit of measures to ease tensions, promote dialogue, and enable the formal agreement to summitry.

Although there is an air of optimism surrounding these events, it’s the aftermath where the most important acts of reciprocity must occur. Previous instances of diplomacy with North Korea have left much to be desired — many analysts and historians remain sceptical that this meeting will deliver any tangible progress toward denuclearisation and lasting détente. Yet regardless of the outcome of the summit, it has already promoted a shift in the diplomatic status quo. Possibly to Trump’s chagrin, it is one that may have tilted in favour of Kim Jong-Un.


In this May 24, 2018 photo, The fourth tunnel of North Korea's nuclear test site is blown up in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made good on his promise to demolish his country's nuclear test site as a group of foreign journalists looked on. / Trump-Kim
Photo: orea Pool/Yonhap via AP

With this outcome, many analysts have noted the difficulties the Trump administration will face going forward, particularly on the subject of denuclearisation. As part of his “one-time shot”, “mission of peace” style diplomacy, Trump’s inherited campaign of “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang appears to have been shelved in order to ensure continued improvement in relations with North Korea. The dilemma for Trump is that this means stepping away from measures of strategic coercion that appeared to be most effective in getting North Korea to the table. In addition, given that Trump seems to have missed the opportunity to leverage sanctions against DPRK to gain more results from this summit, it will now prove difficult to orchestrate future sanctions regimes should negotiations go awry.

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Without greater progress towards denuclearisation, the actuality of a formal security guarantee for the DPRK is similarly beyond reach and future negotiations will likely see little in the way of tangible outcomes. For Washington, the only other potential offerings that could be used to spur progress involve the drawdown of the US military presence in East Asia and the curtailing of Washington’s nuclear umbrella in the region, all of which have been routinely dismissed.

On the other side of the equation, Kim Jong-Un appears to be making significant progress towards his own, unexpressed goals. Where only a year ago the North Korean state was seen as an isolated pariah removed from the international community, Kim now appears to be the centre of attention fielding visits to world leaders, posing for selfies, and even being cheered by onlookers during his time in Singapore.

In the lead up to the Singapore summit, a number of world leaders gave important indications of their pro-DPRK positions. Among them were proposals for increased trade with Singapore, a summit with Vladimir Putin, normalised relations with China, informal cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, economic cooperation with South Korea, and even hints that Syria’s President Bashar al Assad will seek an audience with Kim Jong-Un in the coming months.

Given these enhancements to North Korea’s international standing and legitimacy, US offers of economic assistance to lift North Korea out of its state of nascent development may not find much purchase. That too will likely hamper efforts to pressure Kim Jong-Un and forge an advantageous outcome from ongoing negotiations. Despite Kim’s apparent goodwill during this summit, if there are other options available that will benefit the reclusive regime, but don’t involve denuclearisation, Chairman Kim will likely pursue them and Trump’s diplomatic efforts may end up falling well short.

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