Where we stand post-Singapore

Trump and Kim’s meeting was historic and a sign of progress. But we’ve been here before, and there is still much work to be done.


Last night (EST; this morning local time in Singapore), President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un made history as the first leaders of their respective countries to meet face to face. By 2 pm local time in Singapore, the two heads of state seemingly made more history by signing an agreement committing to work together to “build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”

The agreement outlined several ambitious, laudable goals but was short on details. The crux of it was that Kim committed to working toward the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, reaffirming the April 27, 2018, Panmunjom Declaration, in exchange for “security guarantees” from Trump and the United States.

This is a far cry from an actual peace treaty, but in fairness, the lack of detail was to be expected and is par for the course for an agreement of this nature. Typically how these things go is that higher-level officials agree to the broad strokes of a deal and leave lower-level officials to hash out the nuances, a process that can take months or even years.

The summit in Singapore is cause for cautious optimism. But, as the old cliché goes, the devil is in the details—and history shows us that these details are hard to reconcile.

We’ve been here before

It’s worth remembering that this isn’t the first time we’ve gotten close to a deal. Perusing the history of U.S.-North Korean nuclear diplomacy, one finds the smoldering carcasses of numerous similar deals gone awry. In many respects, the agreement signed today is much weaker than previous commitments.

In 1992, for example, the two Koreas signed a declaration in which both countries agreed not to “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons” or to “possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.” North Korea even agreed to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections for verification.

The declaration kicked off years of further deal-making to work out the kinks. In several instances, North Korea agreed to give up much more than it did at the Singapore summit. But the North was found to be in breach of the agreement several times throughout the ensuing decade, which led to a cycle of the U.S. escalating sanctions and North Korea further developing its nuclear program. Talks ultimately fell apart by the early 2000s and attempts to revive them several years later went nowhere.

So what’s different this time around?

At first glance, the only thing new here is that the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea actually met (which might serve to lessen Trump’s leverage moving forward, see below).  The agreement itself, meanwhile, is reminiscent of deals past and, again, is far less robust in many respects.

But there are several factors that are different this time around that hopefully could lead to a different, better outcome:

  1. There are new players involved, and they may have different goals than previous leaders. Kim Jong-Un may not want the same things as his predecessors Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung. Now that North Korea finally has the security of a nuclear weapon, it may be time for Kim to turn his attention toward the economy. Indeed, Kim has already been taking several steps in that direction over the past half decade, starting with his announcement in 2013 of “a policy of ‘dual progress,’ which gave equal weight to the development of nuclear weapons and to the economy,” as the New Yorkers Evan Osnos noted in last week’s issue. Of course, such a turn would entail getting the U.S. to lift sanctions. Trump, for his part, has implemented a strategy that is a total departure from previous presidents. While many experts consider this “fire and fury” strategy to be reckless, others, such as FiveThirtyEight’s resident economist and game theorist Oliver Roeder, think that these tactics might have changed the game.
  2. The stakes are higher. Unlike in past negotiations, North Korea now has a fully functional nuclear arsenal complete with ICBMs capable of reaching not only South Korea and Japan but also the west coast of the U.S.—and even as far as Denver or Chicago by some estimations. This makes the prospect of denuclearization much more appealing and much more urgent. Meanwhile, in North Korea, the survival of Kim’s regime may depend on getting sanctions relief to create a better economy for his people.
  3. Trump agreed to suspend all war games and joint military exercises with South Korea. This could be viewed as an unprecedented show of good faith that may induce more concrete steps on the North Korean side.
  4. Trump meeting with Kim is a really big deal. Let’s not sell this short; even if the Trump-Kim summit bears no fruit in the end, it is truly historic and totally unprecedented. It could also be considered a show of good faith in and of itself.

What to watch for moving forward

In the coming weeks and months (and maybe even years), many details will need to be worked out to reach a stable longterm deal. We’re certainly in a better place than we were a year ago, but many potential pitfalls still lie ahead. Watch for these indicators moving forward:

  1. How will each side define “denuclearization” and “security guarantees”? In previous negotiations, the U.S. and North Korea have had conflicting understandings of these terms, which has thus far prevented any kind of meaningful deal. To the U.S., denuclearization has typically meant complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear program. To North Korea, this has meant the denuclearization of the entire peninsula, including the removal of U.S. military and South Korea giving up its stockpile of raw nuclear material. This has been a key sticking point in the past. For a deal to work, both sides will likely have to relent some of their demands.
  2. What kind of inspections will North Korea allow? Despite claims to the contrary, the inspections agreed to in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran deal, were incredibly robust. Even Trump’s own Defense Secretary, James Mattis, admitted as much. It’s unclear if Pyongyang will agree to such a muscular verification regime. Anything less and the U.S. is unlikely to sign a deal. While it would be incredibly ironic and hypocritical, Trump would hopefully accept inspections that strong if North Korea agreed to them.
  3. What will the order of operations be? Who will agree to do what when? Until now, there has been a perennial impasse between the two parties that has prevented any real progress: in exchange for full denuclearization, North Korea has sought the complete removal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula and an end to all economic sanctions. At the same time, the U.S. has not been willing to lift sanctions or remove troops until the North agrees to give up its program and weapons. Who will make the first concrete move, and will it be enough to move the ball forward?

Potential pitfalls

For all of the progress made at the summit, there are also several factors that could either sink any potential deal or lead to Trump signing one that is disadvantageous to the U.S.:

  1. As it stands, there’s no indication that the above calculations will be any different this time around. Trump even said that sanctions will remain in place until the North agrees to do more. This could lead to yet another impasse.
  2. Trump may have already given up too much in exchange for relatively little. Previous presidents could have easily met with the Kims, but the U.S. has viewed such a meeting as a way of legitimizing the North, a key bargaining chip for any negotiations. By meeting with Kim, Trump no longer has that bargaining chip, further compounding a dynamic that is tilted far more in North Korea’s favor than in past talks (because of their now-working arsenal). Trump also agreed to end war games with South Korea, another major, unprecedented concession. In essence, the North has already gotten more out of this summit than it has in any past negotiation while giving up less in return—just the same old pledge to “denuclearize” that it’s failed to keep many times before.
  3. Trump and his team have an alarming dearth of expertise both of the inner workings of North Korea and of the science behind nuclear power. When then-Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated the JCPOA, he had Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicist, in his corner. Trump has no such expert (or scientist of any kind, for that matter) on his team to help him hash out the technical aspects of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program. He also lacks an expert on Pyongyang—his administration doesn’t even have an ambassador to South Korea. Without such expertise, talks can easily break down once they get down to the nitty-gritty or could even lead to Trump signing a bad deal because of his lack of understanding.
  4. Going it alone might make verification much harder. Because of Trump’s aversion to multilateral deals, there are currently no other players involved. In the JCPOA, the U.S. worked in conjunction with several other countries and enlisted the IAEA to inspect Iranian nuclear sites. It’s unclear if the U.S. will try to get the international organization onboard for similar inspections to verify that the North Koreans are holding up their end of the bargain. If not, Trump will need to figure out an alternative, of which there is currently no good example.

Lessons of the past show that this is a long shot, even after such a historic summit. And the lack of detail addressed at the meeting while leaving the door open for future talks, has left all the heavy lifting for a later date. To the extent that any details were addressed, Trump has already given away an unprecedented amount—in exchange for relatively little. Perhaps Kim will take this is as a show of good faith—or maybe he’ll take the president for a sucker.

But all things considered, there may be cause for cautious optimism. With recent developments and novel conditions, there is a new playing field. And we’ve seemingly tried everything else with North Korea, so at the very least, this is a fresh approach. Whether or not anything will come of it, only time will tell.


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