The summit in Singapore was brief, and judging from the official statement released after the meeting it did not accomplish very much. North Korea has committed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” That is the same vague, aspirational language that their government has been using for decades, and it still remains as unlikely to happen as ever.
The good news is that the summit did not cause a collapse of talks following a walkout by either side. The two sides committed to hold further talks. Bolton’s efforts to wreck diplomacy with North Korea will undoubtedly continue, but they have not succeeded yet. North Korea committed to nothing that it has not said before in previous statements, but the meeting did not sabotage inter-Korean engagement. The statement reaffirmed the process that DPRK and South Korea began at Panmunjom this spring. The two leaders got the photo op summit they desired, but it has so far proved to be less harmful than I feared. It is difficult to credit the claim that it was “an epochal event of great significance,” as it says in the statement, because we have yet to see what, if anything, will follow from it.
The danger now is that one or both sides will misinterpret what the summit statement means and have unreasonable expectations for how quickly things should progress. The president this morning was already building up expectations that North Korean disarmament would begin soon:
President Trump said Tuesday that he was suspending joint military exercises with South Korean forces and that he was confident North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, would begin dismantling his nuclear arsenal “very quickly.” [bold mine-DL]
This seems to be a case of reading too much into the North Korean commitment and misinterpreting it to fit the U.S. definition of denuclearization. When North Korea doesn’t begin dismantling its arsenal “very quickly,” there is a good chance that the president will overreact and anything that might actually be achieved through negotiations could be lost. North Korea’s arsenal is the reason they were able to receive the recognition and status that they now have, so they have every incentive to keep it.
The U.S. and its allies should now focus on making North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile testing moratorium permanent. Once that has been agreed, it can serve as the foundation for further negotiations. If the administration continues to operate on the assumption that North Korea is giving up its nuclear weapons, it will miss the opportunity to obtain more modest but achievable changes in North Korean behavior.