In June 2018, the attention of the world was focused on Sentosa Island in Singapore as a sitting US President met with a North Korean leader for the first time in history. In just a matter of hours, a year’s worth of insults, threats and hostility exchanged between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un were forgotten as handshakes, compliments and signatures stole the spotlight.
The highly anticipated meeting, which was repeatedly cancelled and reinstated by President Trump, began with a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders. They were later joined by their advisors and ended with the signing of a joint statement that called on North Korea to commit to the “complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” and the US to pledge that it would suspend its regular military exercises with South Korea. Due to the meeting’s historic significance, expectations for its success were not high meaning. As such, the mere existence of the Joint Statement was gladly welcomed. But like any major foreign policy development, the summit and the statement have also been criticised.
For decades, North Korea has sought a meeting with a sitting US President in an effort to present itself as a legitimate state power and it is for this reason that, until recently, such a meeting has not taken place. The United States has consistently maintained that North Korea’s legitimacy will only be acknowledged if or when it chooses to denuclearise. And while this is still the official stance of the United States, President Donald Trump is the first US president to argue that a direct diplomatic relationship between himself and the North Korean leader could achieve complete denuclearisation. His unconventional means of developing such a relationship compromised international security for a year but eventually led to the promising scenes that were witnessed in the Singapore Summit. But by placating North Korea through the positioning of its flags next to those of the United States and by publicising the friendly interactions of the two leaders, it can be said that the US was perhaps too quick to legitimise a country that has not yet proven its commitment to complete denuclearisation.
Additionally, while the joint statement can be appreciated as being a step taken in the right direction in terms of de-escalating the tense nature of the United States’ relationship with North Korea, it does also have its shortfalls. While the rhetoric and overall sentiment of the document is positive and promising, its length and lack of detail warrants concern. The document requires North Korea to work towards denuclearisation with no specific timeline or means in which to do so. Also, no dates are set out for future meetings to take place between the two leaders. In fact, two of the most notable policy decisions were only outlined in a press conference after the summit with no mention of them in the statement. These decisions were that sanctions on North Korea would remain in place while military exercises would be suspended. The latter was a concession that surprised South Korea despite Trump insisting that the US had “not given up anything”.
But despite these criticisms around issues of legitimacy and substance, it is difficult to deny that the summit was a success, at least in terms of preserving international peace and security in the immediate future. What looked like impending war on the Korean peninsula in 2017 has evolved into a genuine path towards peace and the significance of this should not be underestimated. But as Victor Cha, an Asia specialist in the George W. Bush administration argues, it can also be said that “if the bar for success in this summit is war or peace, it is a pretty low bar”. While the optics of this summit can be considered a success for the United States, it will take a sustained focus and an unwavering approach to make any significant progress towards the pursuit of peace.
Meghna Srinivas is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.