Interview: Trump-Kim Summit a Good Beginning, But a Lot of Work Remains

Skand Ranjan Tayal, former Indian ambassador to South Korea, 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 Skand Ranjan Tayal, former Indian ambassador to South Korea (2008-11), had to say.

You can read the rest of the interviews here.

What is significant about this summit?

It is highly important in terms of bringing peace over the Korean peninsula.

For Trump, denuclearisation is most important. How will that happen? What steps will be taken? It is not clear in the agreement. After all, there was a 1994 framework agreement between the US and North Korea which also had somewhat similar objectives, which went nowhere as each accused the other of bad faith.

So going forward, when [Mike] Pompeo will hold more detailed discussions with his North Korean counterpart on who will take what steps, only future will tell. But, apparently the chemistry between Kim and Trump has been alright.

Kim, of course, wanted sanctions be relaxed on which he has got no satisfaction. Even so, he has managed to achieve what they also crave – the idea of equality, same status and recognition by the world.

But Trump made one statement in his press conference that sanctions will be lifted only when the nuclear capacity is ineffective. Now what is the measure of that ineffectiveness? How much time will it take? So there is a lot of work to be done.

Overall, a good set of objectives. However, nothing there is new. Both the United States and North Korea have been there in the 1990s. But failed. So a good beginning, but a lot of work needs to be done. So I am cautiously optimistic. But, in my view, there has not been a major breakthrough.

 Skand Ranjan Tayal. Credit: Asia Society

Skand Ranjan Tayal. Credit: Asia Society

You don’t think that the joint statement is a step forward?

It is a statement of intention; objectives and goals about achieving peace in the Korean peninsula and a new relationship between the US and North Korea have been laid out. It also talks about complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, but there is no agreement on what it means. What territory will it cover?

On reciprocal steps, Trump did give some indication when he said that there will be no more war games and the number of troops will be reduced in the course of time. It seems that the steps have been discussed, but they have not been spelt out. I think Trump would have avoided putting his signature on concrete steps so that when they don’t happen, it will not be as embarrassing.

The joint statement does not talk about verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation.

This phrase has only been used by the Americans. North Koreans have never used it. These things take time. Trump himself said that capacity cannot be dismantled in one day.

Do you think that North Korea would agree to a verification regime which is not under an international agency like IAEA?

In fact, US itself does not have much faith in any international organisations. So they may say insist on their own inspectors. So there are lot of obstacles to be overcome in the days ahead.

How would North Korea define denuclearisation?

It has not been spelt out by them, but it would mean that US naval ships going around the area would not have nuclear weapons. Actually no one knows. they have not spelt it out, so it is all speculation.

Would it involve withdrawal of the nuclear umbrella from Japan and South Korea?

At least South Korea.

But the North Koreans will not give up their nukes entirely?

Well, Americans say that complete means complete. But I don’t see that happening because of Libya etc. Ultimately, what kind of security guarantees can be there. Guarantees are just a piece of paper.

People can say that the ‘America first’ policy would mean that north Korea should not have the capacity to strike at the US mainland. That mean they may give up ICBM capacity, but not short range missiles.

What are the chances of these disparate positions being reconciled during the talks?

Talks will be strung out. They will take time. South Korea will pay the honest broker’s role in trying to bring the two sides together or to at least ensure that things don’t break down. North Korea will also stretch it out. But, if they don’t somehow get some easing of sanctions, then…

See the status quo is okay for the US. North Korea has already said they won’t test any more weapons. So the status quo is okay for the US, but it is not good for Pyongyang because of the sanctions. So they will take some steps by which sanctions are eased, but which remains short of complete denuclearisation. That is how I think their negotiators will work towards.

And Trump will accept it?

As long as they give up the capacity of ICBMs, the American mainland is safe. That is possible.

But he would like to see the agreement survive and thrive. He will try to ensure that it doesn’t break down.

However, an ‘empty’ joint statement is still better than the earlier rhetoric. It keeps both sides engaged.

Absolutely. That is a big plus.

What do you think of India’s stance of raking up proliferation linkages in relation to North Korea?

Our proliferation concern is constant. (Minister of state for external affairs) V.K. Singh had also stated that during his visit and it has been reiterated in our statement. US will keep a very sharp eye on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile capacity. That should ensure that it is not transferred to Iran or Pakistan.

But, as to investigating the AQ Khan network, that is now over. That’s history.

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