Trump-Kim nuclear summit praised, but big questions loom

June 12, 2018 GMT


The summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un was historic in that it presented a potent optic of peace and diplomacy between two leaders who’d traded nuclear threats just a year ago. But the meeting also produced more questions than answers, with the big one being: Will the North Korean dictator actually follow through on denuclearizing?

Uncertainty on the issue loomed especially large Tuesday morning in Washington, where long-time North Korea watchers are all too aware that Mr. Kim’s father Kim Jong-il explicitly committed back in 2005 to “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs,” only to renege on the promise in the years that followed.

While most quickly heaped praise on Mr. Trump for even making the summit happen, a feeling of guarded skepticism spread during the hours following the meeting in Singapore.

“The coming few months will give us a better indication as to whether [this] was an expensive photo opportunity or a positive breakthrough,” said Patrick Cronin, the top Asia security expert at the Center for New American Security in Washington.

“The good news is that longtime adversaries have shown that they can talk and now the White House has a channel with the top leader in Pyongyang,” Mr. Cronin told The Washington Times. “The bad news is that the hard decisions now need to be made on a relatively tight timeline. Has Kim fully disclosed his WMD inventory and what concessions is he asking for to take significant and verifiable steps toward denuclearization?”

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, who served as a top U.S. negotiator with Pyongyang before the last attempt at diplomacy broke down in 2009, was more optimistic.

“I think we’re in a good place, certainly compared to eight months ago,” he told The Times.

During the summit, Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim signed a joint statement in which the North Korean leader broadly “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

For his own part, Mr. Trump committed to “provide security guarantees” to North Korea. While specific details were not included in the document, the president told reporters afterwards that Washington will be freezing U.S. and South Korean military “war games” while negotiations with Pyongyang play out.

It was not immediately clear whether the freeze represents a major concession or not.

Joint U.S. and South Korea military exercises occur regularly on the Korean Peninsula and have long angered North Korea, with Mr. Kim like his father and grandfather before him having called the drills a preparation for invasion of the North and seized on them as an impetus for hurling threats at Washington and Seoul.

Mr. Cronin suggested Mr. Trump had not made a major concession.

“Ending ‘war games’ does not preclude normal peacetime training and is a decision easily reversed should Kim falter from this declaration of intent to pursue disarmament,” he told The Times.

Mr. DeTrani, meanwhile, highlighted the overall progress at hand.

“The President’s comments [were] very positive and the Statement touches on a new relationship with North Korea, and end to the Korean War, complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and recovering POW/MIA remains all positive commitments,” he said.

He also noted that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has clearly been identified to lead future negotiations with a North Korean counterpart and that Mr. Trump separately said National Security Adviser John R. Bolton “will be working on the denuclearization issue, which is very positive.”

But others were sharply critical, claiming it appeared Mr. Trump offered the freeze in joint military drills without first securing full buy-in from South Korea.

“South Korea is a little confused. What does it mean to stop war games?” said Ambassador Joseph Yun, who served as the U.S. special envoy on North Korea at the end of the Obama administration and during President Trump’s initial months in office.

Now a top analyst with United States Institute of Peace, Mr. Yun told CNN on Tuesday that halting joint U.S.-South Korea drills has been North Korea’s “standard demand” for decades.

“We’ve never given that in because it’s been our right, and it means readiness for our troops,” he said. “I mean, what’s the point of having troops there if they’re not ready? And they’re not ready if they cannot exercises.”

″[It] needs to be clarified by the South Koreans and also by the White House, exactly what we mean. Is this forever, or while the talks or going on, just for next month?”

More broadly, Mr. Yun said he was “quite surprised” at the lack of a more specific commitment on denuclearization from the North Korean side.

“I looked at the document and I said, ‘Is this for real?’” he said. “Because it does not meet what I would call minimum requirements in terms of what we expect them to do and what they expect us to do.”

But Mr. Trump emphasized during his remarks after Tuesday’s summit that the meeting was only the start of a much deeper process that will follow with a push toward specific talks on denuclearization to begin “very, very quickly.”

At the same time, South Korean President Moon Jae-in hailed Tuesday’s developments. In a statement circulating on Twitter, Mr. Moon offered his “heartfelt congratulations” and welcomed “the success of the historic North Korea-United States summit.”

“Seventy years of division and hostility ... have cast a dark shadow that makes it difficult to believe what is actually taking place before our very eyes,” said the South Korean president, who’s own aggressive push for diplomacy with Mr. Kim in recent months paved the way for Tuesday’s summit.

“I pay my high compliments for the courage and determination of the two leaders, President Trump and Chairman Kim, not to settle for that outdated and familiar reality, but to take a daring step towards change.”