Korea peninsula: A long walk to uncertainty!

Iqbal Khan

Though President Donald Trump has touted his meeting with Chairman Kim Jong Un as a historic move, most of independent evaluations and interpretations do not support presidential camp’s euphoria.  It is interesting that after stampeding Iran nuclear deal only weeks ago President Trump found a willing state to ink a fresh but highly vague nuclear framework. True to his usual Madman approach towards diplomacy, Trump has declared that the North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat.

North Korean media has since switched over to a jubilant mode, calling it a great victory, claiming that North Korea had won major concessions as the US president said: “the World has taken a big step back from potential Nuclear catastrophe!” “No more rocket launches, nuclear testing or research! The hostages are back home with their families. Thank you to Chairman Kim, our day together was historic!” Trump had twittered.  Kim had made great gestures prior to summit, dismantling of nuclear testing site, removal of three top military generals and letting go American hostages alongside a promise of a moratorium on missile testing as well.  On the other hand, Trump played hard, he even walked away from the summit; he reverse paddled after receiving a big letter from Kim.

A classified assessment from Israel’s foreign ministry has raised a point that a brief document signed by Trump and Kim fails to commit the North to “full, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.” Instead, the agreement calls for “complete denuclearization.” The report also questions Trump’s decision to suspend joint military drills with South Korea: “the road to real and substantive change, if it ever happens, will be long and slow.”

Retired Admiral Harry Harris, the US ambassador designate to South Korea has challenged Trump’s claim that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat to the world, saying that “we have to continue to worry about that.” North Korea’s media said that President Trump had not only promised to end joint military drills with South Korea, but also to lift sanctions and allow a “step-by-step” denuclearization process, rather than the immediate dismantling of its nuclear program.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated that the agreement commits the North Korea to the total nuclear disarmament demanded by the US. The announcement marked a reversal from the past American rejection of China’s “freeze-for-freeze” proposal, which called for an end to the military exercises in exchange for a cease to the North’s weapons tests. Secretary is of the view that North Korea will get no economic sanctions relief until it completes denuclearization; dismissing claims from Pyongyang that the US had offered to drop some sanctions during the process.

Independent analysts have pointed to the lack of substance in the agreement that has committed the US to unspecified security guarantees for North Korea in exchange for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Many have said that though Pyongyang had vowed in the past to denuclearize but had repeatedly broken such promises. Carnegie has reported: “The Singapore summit was Pyongyang’s moment to come out as the world’s ninth nuclear power.

Despite North Korea’s vague commitment to denuclearization, the only thing that may be dismantled is the United States’ long-standing military alliance with Japan and South Korea.

“Kim Jong Un got what he wanted: the international prestige and respect of a one-on-one meeting with the American president, the legitimacy of North Korean flags hanging next to American flags in the background,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre.

Trump made the surprise announcement that the US would halt joint military exercises with its security ally Seoul; something long sought by Pyongyang, which claims the drills are a rehearsal for invasion. Trump told reporters, adding that “at some point” he wanted to withdraw US troops from the South.

Both Seoul and US military commanders in the South indicated they had no idea the announcement was coming, and in an editorial Korea Herald said it was “worrisome”.

World powers have welcomed its outcome, though with a proviso that it was only the first step towards resolving the nuclear stand-off. Some media in Japan, were cautious: “The real bargaining has now started between the US and North Korea. Problems that cannot be solved through a bling-bling political show remain on both sides,” said the liberal paper Mainichi Shimbun. Reactions from America’s allies in Asia have been mixed.

Some question whether Trump’s outreach to the North actually signalled a broader American retreat from the region. On paper, there is nothing President Trump could extract from North Korean leader, that Kim’s father and grandfather had not already given to past American presidents.

Joint statement was sketchy. It called for the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula but provided neither a timeline nor any details. James Acton has aptly argued in Huffington Post: “The Trump-Kim summit—and particularly its aftermath—was a farce”.  In a joint paper for Carnegie, Toby Dalton, Narushige Michishita, and Tong Zhao have opined: “The summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un holds out a vague promise of progress”.

Did Kim play blind or he has had credible assurances through back channels. While analysts were hoping that after Iran nuclear deal fiasco, it would be Kim, walking away from the summit citing credibility issue with Trump. But he was seen as dying for the summit, this eagerness surprised many. Have long biting sanctions sapped Kim’s will, or is there an undercover understanding between China and the US on the final outcome? North Korea will have to wait for a while to see what is more hurting: American sanctions or trusting America. Korean peninsula’s long walk towards uncertainty has just begun!


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