As the world watched, the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) signed an agreement in Singapore.
Note the word used there. Not “treaty.” Not “deal”. “Agreement.”
For those who looked to the Singapore Summit as the beginning of a new era, they are in for a disappointment.
When looked at from an analytical view, there really wasn’t a lot to the agreement that wasn’t already on the table. Aside from the United States pledging to end war games in the Korean theatre, no one really got anything new or substantial out of Singapore.
Here is what was agreed to, taken directly from the text of the Agreement document:
* President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK
No security guarantees were actually made. The United States talked about reducing troops in some unspecified future, but nothing was set in stone, and the United States even said that things could change should North Korea not live up to its side of the agreement.
* Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula
North Korea has been saying that a lot recently. But as many have brought up, the definition of “denuclearization” may not mean the same thing to North Korea as it does to the United States. (See North Korea’s definition of ‘denuclearization’ is very different from United States’ and No Good Choices With North Korea) Future negotiations will have to specify what exactly is meant by “denuclearization” and how to go about verifying that. Much criticism was made of the deal the United States made with Iran regarding the lack of real inspections and verification. The United States does not want to make the same mistake with North Korea as it did with Iran.
* The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new US – DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the population of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
The United States has, in the past, held a philosophy of bringing its style of representative government and living to other nations. It will be hard pressed to avoid imposing that on a country that is deeply suspicious of outsiders as well as fearful of having its own power usurped. It certainly can happen, but political forces in the United States are already working to sabotage any deal the U.S. makes with North Korea by attempting to impose irrelevant conditions on to it.
Critics are already complaining that the agreement did not address human rights issues in North Korea. While laudable, it isn’t in the best interest of the United States to muddy the waters with side issues. When you’re talking about nuclear missiles aimed at your country, you worry first about that and then maybe tackle other things you deem important. In the same way, if someone is holding a gun to your face, you don’t really worry about the fact that he also beats his kids. Get the gun away first and then deal with the other thing.
* The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
Always a good goal, but touchy-feely. Doesn’t really mean anything. What does stable mean to the U.S.? to North Korea? Likely different things.
* Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
It is typical of new agreements to reaffirm old ones. Happens all the time. But it isn’t anything new and brings nothing new to the table.
* The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.
While this is one of those side issues, this works to North Korea’s advantage as North Korea has, at least internationally, has been working to put on a new, more positive image. This will help that.
* The United States and the DPRK commit to hold follow-up negotiations
This is key, good news, and not surprising given how relations have gone over the last few months. Despite a number of detractors who (strangely) seem to want negotiations between the United States and North Korea to fail, talking with your adversary is always a good thing. Breaking off communications can be used as a short term tactic, but in the long run you can’t negotiate anything unless you are negotiating.
So what exactly does the Singapore Agreement mean? It means that there are more talks, more negotiations in the future.
The United States has already said that sanctions will not be coming off of North Korea at this time. It has, however, said that the war games with South Korea will stop. North Korea has said it will destroy its rocket engine testing facility. (This was already going to happen, so this is not a new thing to come out of this meeting.)
Ultimately, it remains to be seen what is going to happen. Certainly, there has been a significant change in North Korea’s approach to the United States. Whether this was the result of sanctions crippling the country and North Korea was facing internal unrest, whether this was because China finally told North Korea to start negotiating its nuclear arsenal, or whether because North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un was replaced by a doppelganger (sure, why not?), we’ll never know.
Some speculate that North Korea has grown nervous about China and is using its new approach to the United States in the same way India uses its relationship with Russia as a check on the United States. There could be some truth to that. Who knows?
For the world, this all means that a tentative step toward peace in the Korean theatre has happened. But history cautions us. North Korea has made agreements and broken them in the past. Could this be different?
In the words of another U.S. President, “trust…but verify.”