Of Trump, Kim, and MAD
The world took a deep sigh of relief last Tuesday as United States president Donald Trump and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) dictator Kim Jong-un finally shook hands during their summit in Singapore and signed a document on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Both leaders treated each other like old pals during the meeting. Trump praised Kim as “a very talented man” and even showed the young dictator the interior of his armored limousine. Bizarre as it seemed, it was a total turnaround compared to how they both traded threats and insults only a few months ago after DPRK tested intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) capable of reaching any part of the US mainland.
With the development of missiles that could literally wipe out any city in the US, North Korea declared that it has completed its goal of nuclear deterrence. As in any nation that has achieved this status, DPRK boasts that it is now ready to fight a nuclear war with the US on equal terms, that is, with the same guarantee of total annihilation or a “mutually-assured destruction” (MAD).
Trump reacted by promising “fire and fury” for Kim, saying that he has a much bigger nuke arsenal. The US also forced the United Nations Security Council to impose the most severe sanctions on the Hermit Kingdom. As Kim found it hard to smuggle oil from trusted allies like China and Russia, and as foreign bank accounts of his cronies were being frozen, he started to soften his stand and took South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s invitation to join the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang in February as an opportunity to employ a charm offensive that culminated in both leaders’ peace summit at the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ).
The South Korean President then took the opportunity to mediate talks between Trump and Kim. To signify his openness for the talks, Kim released American hostages and destroyed missile test sites. This prompted Trump to push through with the summit, turning back from previous pronouncements that any talk with DPRK won’t work anymore.
But last Tuesday, Trump and Kim finally met face-to-face in Singapore. It was a historic and unprecedented meeting of leaders of both countries that nearly 70 years ago were engaged in a brutal war. An agreement was signed with both leaders promising to work for peace and prosperity in the Korean Peninsula.
But the euphoria dies down as soon as we read between the lines of the document, which is vaguely worded and full of generalizations. For instance, it declares that DPRK “commits to work towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.” It fails to specify a process of complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID), which was supposed to be the goal of the US in the summit. Committing to work for denuclearization is different from committing to destroy all nuclear weapons. It puts emphasis on the process rather than the result.
The phrase “denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” is also much broader compared to the more specific “denuclearization of North Korea.” The latter makes it clear that the scope and limitation of disarmament applies only to DPRK. On the other hand, the former phrase implies that the US also dismantles all its capability for doing nuclear strikes against the DPRK. So perhaps, in later negotiations when relations go sour again, Kim may argue that he will not push through with disarmament unless the US also disables all nukes targeted at them, including the withdrawal of missile defense systems, nuclear submarines, and strategic bombers positioned in nearby bases. So far, Trump agreed to end US participation in military exercises in South Korea and even hinted future pullout of all American troops there.
To ask the US for a reciprocal nuclear disarmament is like asking for the moon. But the vagueness of the peace agreement gives Kim an excuse to drop it later, something DPRK has done before. Still, the Singapore talks is just the start and it remains to be seen how negotiations later will turn out. Trump and Kim have come out of their way for that meeting and both of their countries have so much to lose if the negotiations fail. So let’s continue hoping for the best.
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