Interview: 'If Not for Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, I Don't Think This Would Have Happened'

Rakesh Sood, former special envoy of the prime minister for disarmament and non-proliferation issues, talks to The Wire about the historic US-North Korea summit.

New Delhi: While hype around the first summit between the US and North Korean leaders starts to mellow down, experts and former diplomats largely agreed that ‘complete denuclearisation’ was unlikely to mean Pyongyang giving up their nuclear weapons arsenal entirely, and said that forthcoming negotiations will be a long-drawn affair.

Just a few months ago, they were calling each other ‘deranged dotard’ and ‘little rocket man’, and threatening to bring down “fire and fury”. But over a series of meeting in Singapore’s Capella hotel, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un got along rather well. The joint statement commits North Korea to move towards “complete denuclearisation”, with more rounds of negotiations in the future led on the US side by secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

But there were few details beyond that. It was left to the two sides to fill in some of the blanks.

Trump announced that US will freeze “provocative” war games with South Korea, which he added would save a lot of money. The DPRK leader, Trump said, had promised to destroy a missile engine testing site.

The North Korean official news agency KCNA announced that Trump offered to lift sanctions and extend security guarantees. The North Korean media report did mention the offer to halt military exercises, but there was no mention of destroying a missile facility as announced by Trump.

“Kim Jong Un clarified the stand that if the U.S. side takes genuine measures for building trust in order to improve the DPRK-U.S. relationship, the DPRK, too, can continue to take additional good-will measures of next stage commensurate with them,” said the KCNA report. It further said that both US and North Korean leaders “had the shared recognition to the effect that it is important to abide by the principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action in achieving peace, stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”.

The historical nature of the summit is not contested by observers, but there is concern that posing before the world press and signing a joint statement was the easy bit.

The Wire spoke to five experts who have worked on nuclear disarmament and observed the geopolitics of the Korean politics to get their view on the outcome of the Singapore summit. Here is what Rakesh Sood, former special envoy of the prime minister for disarmament and non-proliferation issues, had to say.

You can read the rest of the interviews here.

How would you place this summit in its historical context? How significant is it compared to previous initiatives?

The previous initiatives were never led by summitry. This is the first time that you have summit-led initiatives. So in that sense, it is quite historic. You can’t deny it to Trump. It is unprecedented that the leaders of the two countries are meeting.

Did you ever believe that this would happen?

Honestly, had it not been for President Trump and Kim Jong-un, I don’t think that this could have happened. I think both of them have displayed an enormous ability to lead from the front. They have not gone by established play books or anything like that. I don’t think any other pair of leaders could have achieved this kind of an outcome.

Does the joint statement take forward the issue of denuclearisation?

It commits to a process. See, earlier, everything that was done was with regards to a freeze. Now a freeze on testing is something that North Korea has already announced. And if you noticed that while the stopping of the exercises is not mentioned in the joint statement, in the press conference, Trump did commit to that.

Rakesh Sood. Courtesy: Geneva Centre for Security Policy

Rakesh Sood. Courtesy: Geneva Centre for Security Policy

Joint statement says that DPRK will ‘commit towards’ denuclearisation…

Yes, and it said that Pompeo will lead the talks from the US side, which is very high level. Pompeo has been twice there now. Probably, he has developed a certain comfort level. On their side, they haven’t indicate who will lead the talks.

The joint statement talks of complete denuclearisation, but not complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation (CVID). How would you look at its absence?

It was quite clear in the run-up to this that CVID is not something which is achievable instantaneously. And it was made apparent. I am sure somewhere along the way Trump would have accepted and understood this.

It is a process. Trump acknowledged in his press conference that it will take time. “Yes, we will start work on it straight away, but it will take time.” Whether it is months or years.

Trump’s announcement of stopping war games was China’s long-standing demand. Right?

Yes. This means that tensions come down so that there is no further justification for putting another missile defence unit in South Korea etcetera. Because it was always the North Korean threat that was used as a justification for missile defence.

It seems that the US has conceded more than the North Koreans.

This is the whole point. The media wants to declare victory early. This is how India-Pakistan talks get screwed.

How do the North Koreans look at denuclearisation? They won’t give up nuclear weapons?

They need some kind of normalisation… They need nuclear weapons as long as there is someone like [John] Bolton making comments like the Libyan model. That makes them more determined to retain their nuclear weapons.

Do you think that the main pitfalls or the saboteurs are within the US administration?

Yes, absolutely.

And how will that be constrained?

Trump can sack the NSA. If he finds that Bolton is not listening to him, he can… Trump so far seems to be invested in this. 

Trump will not sabotage his own deal. That is unlikely. Even though he says that if the deal is not likely, he can always walk away. 

But that is probably Trump’s ‘art of the deal’.

Yes, that’s his negotiating strategy.

India has again brought up issue of North Korea’s proliferation linkages in its statement welcoming the summit. Can you imagine that this matter of North Korea’s link to the AQ Khan network would resurface at all during the negotiations?

I doubt it. I don’t think that in the context of US-North Korea, it is going to surface. If the US picks up some information, maybe…. I doubt that there is anything new. If they pick up some new information, it will be just by way of veracity of historical records kind of thing. 

Is that possible?

Yes sure. For that you have to sit down and go through the designs and get those guys to talk, and they will hopefully tell you that this is stuff that happened nearly 20 years ago.

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