Written by Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya; Originally appeared on strategic-culture.org
US President Donald Trump bilaterally embraced the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea, as the DPRK is simply and informally called, through a joint statement of principles signed by Trump and his counterpart from the DPRK, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un, on June 12, 2018. The two government leaders did this in the Southeast Asian island city-state of Singapore. The DPRK-US statement of principles was signed by Kim Jong-Un, as the chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK, and Donald Trump, as the head of state and federal government of the United States of America, in the Capella Hotel on the Singaporean southern resort area of Sentosa Island, where Universal Studios Singapore is located. It was widely anticipated for months by the whole world.
Speaking very highly about his North Korean opposite, during the DPRK-US summit President Trump even told the press that he has cultivated a “special relationship” with Chairman Kim and that they had established trust in one another. Both leaders signed a final statement saying:
1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new US-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.
As a result of the DPRK-US meeting, Trump said joint US-South Korean military exercises would be cancelled and even admitted frankly to ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos that past negotiations failed because of Washington letting Kim Jong-Il down. Indirectly conceding that the North Koreans were right, Trump called US-South Korean military exercises “very provocative” and “tremendously expensive.” On the other hand, the North Koreans declared that they would get rid of their nuclear weapons and that the US would remove its nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula.
From the Stratosphere and Twittersphere to the Winter Olympics
Prior to the DPRK-US summit in Singapore, there were direct and indirect exchanges and informal meetings between DPRK representatives and US representatives. An important period for DPRK-US backchannel exchanges began when North Korea successfully demonstrated that it could militarily retaliate against the US with its missiles. This started with the testing of the Hwasong-14, North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, on July 4 and July 28, 2017.
The DPRK demonstrated that it could hit the US with its missiles through the Hwasong-14 test, which raised alarm bells in the Pentagon and the Washington Beltway about the DPRK’s capabilities to retaliate against the US should a conflict take place between the two adversaries. Trump reacted by giving a press conference from the Trump National Gulf Club, his personal golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” he told reporters from his New Jersey golf club on August 8, 2017. The Trump Administration also touted a policy of “maximum pressure” against the DPRK, but the North Korean government dismissed President Trump’s threats as “nonsense.”
The DPRK responded to US threats with the announcement that plans were being drawn by its military commanders to launch missiles towards the US territory of Guam, which Washington annexed from the Japanese after the Second World War as a Pentagon forward base and means of launching US attacks on targets in Asia. North Korea challenged the Trump Administration further by testing three short-range ballistic missiles on August 26, 2017. This was followed by another test launch on August 29, 2017. Next, the DPRK announced it had successfully tested a thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb on September 3, 2017.
Trump reacted by condemning North Korea and writing on Twitter, his favourite medium of communication, that “North Korea is a rogue nation which has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success.” Less than two weeks later, the North Koreans did another ballistic missile test on September 15, 2017. On September 17, 2017, as a result Trump dubbed Chairman Kim “Rocket man” on Twitter, to which Kim responded by calling Trump a “dotard.” This was followed by a test of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile on November 28, 2017. At this point it became abundantly clear the North Korean military could fire into anywhere inside the United States, from New York City and Dallas and Los Angeles and Seattle, if the US military were to launch an attack on the DPRK.
The South Korean government of President Moon Jae-In, who was elected on a peace and Korean reunification platform, offered to hold talks with North Korea on the Twenty-Third Winter Olympics and a series of other issues on January 9, 2018. This led to the two Koreas having their teams march together under the banner of the blue and white Korean Unification Flag during the opening ceremony and fielding a unified Korean female hockey team at the Winter Olympics in the South Korea city of Pyeongchang. President Kim Yong-Nam, the president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK (and North Korea’s official head of state), and Kim Yo-Jong, the younger sister of Chairman Kim Jong-Un, would also lead a high-profile DPRK delegation to Pyeongchang. Behind the inter-Korean Olympic diplomacy steps were being made for future talks and signals being transmitted between the US and DPRK.
As a result of the inter-Korean Olympic diplomacy, a high-ranking ten-person South Korean delegation led by Director Chung Eui-Yong, the head of the South Korean National Security Office, arrived in North Korea for talks with DPRK officials on March 5, 2018. Aside from a planned meeting between President Moon Jae-In and Chairman Kim Jong-Un in Panmunjom (Truce Village) or the Joint Security Area of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), this led to the DPRK openly calling for a direct meeting between President Trump and Chairman Kim on March 8, 2018. The DPRK also offer to suspend all nuclear and missile testing as a good will gesture to hold the bilateral meetings with Moon and Trump.
The announcement about a Kim-Trump meeting was publicly made by Director Chung Eui-Yong in Washington. This was done after Director Chung and a South Korean delegation consisting of Director Suh Hoon, the head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (formerly known as the Agency for National Security Planning and founded as the Korean Central Intelligence Agency), and Ambassador Cho Yoon-Je, the South Korean ambassador to the US, held a meeting with President Trump in the White House where the invitation of Kim Jong-Un was verbally delivered by the South Korean officials after they briefed Trump about the inter-Korean talks in North Korea that were held on March 5, 2018.
After speaking to Donald Trump in the White House, Chung Eui-Yong announced that Trump said that he would meet Chairman Kim sometime in the month of May. Subsequently, US Press Secretary Sarah Sanders confirmed that Trump had accepted Kim Jong-Un’s invitation for a direct meeting “at a place and time to be determined.” Trump then confirmed this himself by writing the following on Twitter for the public: “Kim Jong Un [sic.] talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!”
From Beijing and Panmunjom to Scandinavia
Behind the scenes, North Korea’s strategic ally the People’s Republic of China played an important role in facilitating a DPRK-US summit in Singapore. Chairman Kim made a trip to China on March 25, 2018 using the railway network connecting North Korea to China by special train. The reason he had gone to Beijing was to hold important consultations with Chinese leaders about his planned meetings with the leaders of South Korea and the US.
Kim Jon-Un’s visit to China, which Beijing described as an unofficial visit, was his first known trip abroad since he became the leader of the DPRK in 2011. After two days of speculation based on reports of a heavily protected train from North Korea arriving in Beijing, the unofficial visit by Kim Jong-Un was announced by the Chinese government, which also briefed the Trump Administration and sent a personal message from Chinese Paramount Leader Xi Jinping to Trump, on March 27, 2018. Chairman Kim stayed in China until March 28, 2018.
North Korea affirmed that denuclearization was its consistent and longstanding objective, but that the North Koreans needed security guarantees from the US government that the DPRK would never be threatened or attacked again by the US military. After the high-level consultations between China and the DPRK, Xi Jinping would publicly announce that the North Koreans were ready to resume talks about disarming on April 5, 2018. The visit by Chairman Kim to President Xi paralleled Kim Jong-Il’s visit to Chinese Paramount Leader Jiang Zemin in May 2000 before an inter-Korean summit between Kim Jong-Il and South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung in June 2000 and a later meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 19, 2000.
In line with the Chinese mediation between the US and North Korea, the head of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Michael Pompeo, visited the DPRK in early-April 2018. Only after Pompeo visited North Korea, did Donald Trump inform the world through Twitter on April 18, 2018. Trump wrote: “Mike Pompeo met with Kim Jong Un [sic.] in North Korea last week. Meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed. Details of Summit are being worked out now. Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!” Mike Pompeo’s trip to begin making arrangements for the DPRK-US summit in Singapore took place after Pompeo was nominated on March 13, 2018 by Trump to replace Secretary Rex Tillerson as the US secretary of state and the top diplomat of the Trump Administration. It is worth noting that Tillerson was removed from his position in the US Department of State due to key differences between himself and President Trump on the nuclear deal the US had signed with Iran, whereas Pompeo was chosen because of his obedience to Trump and shared opposition to fulfilling Washington’s obligations under the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran.
Before the inter-Korean summit, Pyongyang’s next step was to declare a moratorium suspending its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile testing and to close the Punggye-Ri Nuclear Test Site. The Korean Central News Agency, the official news agency of the DPRK, announced that this would take place as of April 21, 2018. Albeit at this point the North Koreans had already established the capabilities they needed and no longer had to perform nuclear or missile tests, the move by Pyongyang was presented as a good will gesture and concession to both US and South Korean officials.
With a greenlight from both the US and China, the summit between President Moon Jae-In and Chairman Kim then took place in Panmunjom or the Joint Security Area on April 27, 2018. Kim Jong-Un would cross into the South Korean side of the DMZ, while briefly encouraging President Moon to step over into the North Korean side of the DMZ, before the two Korean leaders walked to hold their bilateral meeting in the Peace House on the South Korean side of Panmunjom. The inter-Korean talks also included military and security officials from both sides. Both the DPRK and South Korea agreed to sign a peace treaty to officially end the Korean war before the year 2018 finished and to take the necessary steps to make the Korean Peninsula a nuclear weapon free zone. The North-South talks also resulted in integrating past agreements for Korean reunification. Kim Jong-Un would then go back to China and meet Xi Jinping in Dalian, Liaoning to coordinate with the Chinese further on May 7, 2018.
After the inter-Korean talks and two days after the Trump Administration would violate the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran and UN Security Council Resolution 2231 (on May 8, 2018) by unilaterally withdrawing the US, President Trump would use Twitter to announce the place and date of the DPRK-US summit on May 10, 2018. Trump wrote: “The highly anticipated meeting between Kim Jong Un [sic.] and myself will take place in Singapore on June 12th. We will both try to make it a very special moment for World Peace!” This was followed by indirect and direct North Korean and US exchanges. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho would travel to the Swedish capital of Stockholm for talks with Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström, whose country diplomatically represents the US as the protecting power in the DPRK, from March 15 to 17, 2018. Deputy Director-General Choe Kang Il, the deputy official responsible for North American affairs in the DPRK, would leave to Finland for informal talks with US and South Korean officials on May 18, 2018.
Before the DPRK-US summit in Singapore, US President Donald Trump publicly had cancelled his bilaterally meeting with DPRK Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un. Whether this was bravado for the public or a negotiating tactic is unclear. What is clear is that the Trump Administration does not think or act in unison. Whether he is talking about Russia or Syria, US Vice-President Michael Pence has a record of contradicting or distorting the words of Donald Trump. North Korea is just one case.
Cancellation and Restoration of the DPRK-US Summit
Even when the US held war games in South Korea, everything seemed to be roughly on track until US Vice-President Michael Pence began making remarks. It started with comments made by US National Security Advisor John Bolton, who Trump choose on March 22, 2018 to replace H.R. McMaster as his national security advisor. Bolton, like Mike Pompeo, joined the Trump Administration due to his opposition to the US maintaining its legal commitments in the nuclear agreement with Iran, whereas H.R. McMaster was removed, like Rex Tillerson, because of his disagreements with Trump about the US keeping violating its commitment to the Iran nuclear deal. Moving on, Bolton told CBS News about the possibility of Washington using the “Libya model” for the verifiable disarming of North Korea on April 29, 2018.
Clearly misunderstanding that Bolton was talking about the 2003 deal research between the Libyans and the US and not the US-led 2011 war against Libya, Trump rejected Bolton’s “Libya model” on May 17, 2018 saying “we decimated that country” and then adding that the horrible fate suffered by Libya shows “what will take place if we don’t make a deal.” Showing even more witlessness, Mike Pence played on the comments of Bolton and Trump to threaten the North Koreans during a Fox News interview on May 21, 2018. Referring to Trump’s earlier comments, Vice-President Pence told Fox News that, as “a fact” of what was going to happen, “as the President made clear, this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong-Un doesn’t make a deal” with Washington. The irony should not escape one that Libya did negotiate with the US to end its nuclear program and still suffered regime change and was attacked by the US and its NATO allies. None of this was lost on an unamused Pyongyang, which has always used what happened to Libya to explain why it has not surrendered its rights to having a national nuclear weapons program.
Responding to Vice-President Pence’s threat against her country, North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Son-Hui called Mike Pence a “political dummy” who had no idea what he was talking about or any understanding of international diplomacy in an interview with the Korean Central News Agency on May 24, 2018. Choe correctly pointed out that North Korea and Libya were situationally incomparable. This was because Libya was starting a weapons program with the aim of developing nuclear weapons when it began negotiating with the US, while North Korea already has nuclear weapons. “I cannot suppress my surprise at such ignorant and stupid remarks gushing out from the mouth of” Vice-President Pence, she declared. In what was perhaps the most sensationalized part of her interview, Choe Son-Hui also told the Korean Central News Agency that if “the US will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behaviour of the United States.”
This chain of events resulted in Donald Trump cancelling his meeting with Kim Jong-Un in Singapore. Ironically this took place on the same day (May 24, 2018) that Pyongyang began demolishing the Punggye-Ri Nuclear Test Site as part of its decommissioning. Trump wrote a letter to Kim saying that “based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting. Therefore, please let this letter serve to represent that the Singapore summit, for the good of both parties, but the detriment of the world, will not take place.” Trump also added a veiled threat by saying the following: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.” The letter concludes with Trump telling Kim if “you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.” Chairman Kim Jong-Un would respond by saying he was always read for dialogue, while the Trump Administration started trying to blame the DPRK for not doing anything to organize the summit in Singapore. The next day, on May 25, 2018, Trump would use Twitter to announce that the meeting was reinstated: “We are having productive talks with North Korea about reinstating the Summit which, if it does happen, will likely remain in Singapore on the dame date, June 12th. [sic.], and, if necessary will be extended beyond that date.”
Kim Yong-Chol, the Vice-Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea and a former intelligence chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau of the DPRK, was then despatched to the US by Pyongyang. Vice-Chairman Kim Yong-Chol would stop in China first and then arrive in New York City on May 30, 2018. In New York City Vice-Chairman Kim Yong-Chol met Mike Pompeo for talks. The next day, on June 1, 2018 he would personally deliver a letter from Kim Jong-Un to President Trump at the White House in Washington, DC.
The Consistent North Korean Quest for Harmony
It is generally unknown that prior to the DPRK-US summit in Singapore, the North Korean side for years had been patiently making overtures to the US government behind closed doors in bilateral and multilateral settings to establish peace and reconciliation. There were even suggestions about establishing some form of economic collaboration between the US and North Korea that would involve the disciplined labour of the DPRK and the capital, investment, and technology of South Korea and the US. Some of the North Korean proposals even surprised the representatives of the other countries involved in various multilateral meetings and the Six-Party Talks composed of officials from China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, and the US. A deal was even made between the Clinton Administration and North Korea in 1994, called the Agreed Framework, that fell apart. The North Koreans even went as far as disabling their Yongbyon Nuclear Plant in 2007 as a sign of good will to Washington. Pyongyang, however, legally restarted its nuclear program in 2008 after the US failed to keep its commitments to the DPRK and after US President Barack Obama reserved the right to launch nuclear attacks on Iran and the DPRK in contravention of Washington’s legal commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Pyongyang has been seeking a peaceful resolution that would include security guarantees that it would not be attacked by the US and allow it to integrate with South Korea. In this regard, the DPRK and South Korea agreed to a roadmap for Korean unification within the framework of a federal system on June 15, 2000 through a join North Korean-South Korean declaration signed by North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il and South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung in Pyongyang. The North-South Declaration of June 15, 2000 states the following principles:
- The South and the North have agreed to resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country.
- For the achievement of reunification, we have agreed that there is a common element in the South’s concept of a confederation and the North’s formula for a loose form of federation. The South and the North agreed to promote reunification in that direction.
- The South and the North have agreed to promptly resolve humanitarian issues such as exchange visits by separated family members and relatives on the occasion of the August 15 National Liberation Day and the question of unswerving Communists serving prison sentences in the South.
- The South and the North have agreed to consolidate mutual trust by promoting balanced development of the national economy through economic cooperation and by stimulating cooperation and exchanges in civic, cultural, sports, health, environmental and all other fields.
- The South and the North have agreed to hold a dialogue between relevant authorities in the near future to implement the above agreements expeditiously.
What can be understood from the consistent position of the DPRK is that it has always wanted peace with security guarantees that it would not be attacked. Aside from accepting the continued deployment of US troops in South Korea, it is not the DPRK’s position that has radically changed. It is the position of the US that has changed.
The Geopolitical and Strategic Shifts Behind the Singapore Summit
To the best of their abilities, both the US and the DPRK are trying to benefit from their meeting in Singapore at the domestic and international levels. How they will each do this is based on contingency, but what is certain is that the summit in Singapore would not have been possible if it were not for several factors. These include the DPRK’s capabilities, the economic rise of China, Eurasian integration, US decline, and the Trump Administration’s tensions with Iran.
In the first instance, from a strategic standpoint, the DPRK-US summit would have been possible if it were not for the development of the DPRK’s nuclear and intercontinental missile programs. Once North Korea crossed the threshold of being able to credibly strike the entirety of US territory, serious negotiations emerged. Moreover, the DPRK developed its nuclear weapons as both a security and bargaining strategy. By developing them and offering to denuclearize, it has maneuvered Washington into agreeing to remove its own nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula. Should both sides respect denuclearization, a denuclearized Korean Peninsula benefits both the DPRK and its ally China.
The DPRK does not intent denuclearization to be unilateral. The Republic of Korea or South Korea must play its role in reducing military tensions. This is outlined in the Panmunjom Declaration of April 27, 2018 and committed to by the US in the joint statement of President Trump with Chairman Kim. In this regard, US nuclear weapons have to be removed from South Korean territory in exchange for North Korean denuclearization.
In the second instance, the rise of China and Eurasian integration have played important roles. Economic integration has been a major driver for inter-Korean talks. It was reported that Moon Jae-In handed Kim Jong-Un a blueprint for the economic integration of the Korean Peninsula within the framework of the broader process of Eurasian integration. According to the South China Morning Post, in an article published on May 7, 2018, “President Moon Jae-in [sic.] gave the North’s leader Kim Jong-un a USB drive containing a ‘New Economic Map of the Korean Peninsula’” during their meeting in Panmunjom. “The initiative included three economic belts – one connecting the west coast of the peninsula to China, making the region a centre of logistics; one connecting the east coast to Russia for energy cooperation and one on the current border to promote tourism,” it further reported. This report, falls into line with President Moon’s campaign promises and policy speeches where he has told South Koreans that he will work for the unification of Korea and the creation of a single economy. With Korean reunification, South Korea can join China’s New Silk Road, have direct transportation and energy links to China and Russia, and be able to reach different European and West Asian markets through the transportation hubs China is setting up.
The threats of the Trump Administration to start trade wars and impose tariffs is an indicator of the decline of the US position. The mere fact that the G-7 meeting Trump arrived to Singapore from was one that included public clashes between the US and its allies is a sign that the world is changing. In this regard, the Trump Administration is also trying to replace multilateralism with bilateralism.
Walking to Singapore While Walking Away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action
In the third instance, the withdrawal of the US from the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) necessitated some type of public display of peacemaking and bargaining by the Trump Administration to help deflect public criticism. While the Trump Administration violated the nuclear agreement with Iran with one hand, it created the glimmer of making or starting the process of making another with nuclear deal with North Korea, albeit the cases of Iran and the DPRK are also very different.
As mentioned by this author in an article published by the Strategic Culture Foundation on October 26, 2017, the goals of the Trump Administration are to get Iran to negotiate a new deal with Washington that includes Tehran’s foreign policy and defensive capabilities, such as Iranian ballistic missile production. It is worth repeating what was written in that 2017 article: “The US now wants to put almost everything, if not everything, on the table [with Iran]. Grand bargain or not, instead of dealing with various dossiers idiosyncratically the US wants to deal with them almost all at once ‘comprehensively’ or in ‘totality.’” This is why Trump refused to respect US commitments to the JCPOA and breached UN Security Council Resolution 2231.
Iran has warned North Korea that the Trump Administration may not keep any deal it makes with the DPRK. Pyongyang is not unmindful of this either. North Korean leaders probably realize that Trump desires to make a nuclear deal on one front after he renounces a nuclear deal on another front and have also played this to their advantage.
At the end of the day, the biggest geopolitical winner of all these events—including Trump’s breach of the JCPOA, which guarantees Iran will look east to Beijing even further—is the People’s Republic of China. When the day comes, China will reap the benefits of peace and integration in the Korean Peninsula. An integrated Korea is in Beijing’s favour economically, just like how a totally denuclearized Korean Peninsula void of US nuclear weapons pointed at both North Korea and China also is.