The Singapore Summit between US President Trump and North Korean leader Kim was lighting a beacon of hope on the Korean Peninsula. After almost 70 years of unending war, a new historical chance was emerging that would gradually bring peace to the divided nation. But, after the summit, renewed frustration about a lack of progress was not long coming. Particularly, the US administration returned to old patterns of negotiation and demonstrated an ambiguous agenda. Moreover, with the US trying to reestablish its global hegemony by means of targeted zero-sum gaming, international support for a diplomatic solution on the Peninsula might once more fall victim to trade-offs in completely unrelated conflicts.
The Joint Statement of the Singapore Summit is a bilateral declaration of intent that still has great potential as a basis for diplomacy. Informally agreed steps including moratoria on missile and nuclear tests as well as on military manoeuvers set the stage for a renewed negotiation process. Although media commentators dismissed the summit as “fake diplomacy”, the statement was groundbreaking precisely because it was formulated in vague terms. Compared with previous declarations, the document neither contains absolute demands nor does it prescribe concrete steps and preconditions for reengagement. Thus it remains possible for both parties to negotiate a process that would achieve all major goals while considering all needs along the way.
Based on the talks during the summit, North Korean negotiators expected that consultations would lead to a common idea about road-mapping paving the way forward. What is needed is a framing and structuring of a process that combines a peace-settlement with denuclearization and joint working groups that can identify key challenges and measures. Yet, during consultations in Pyongyang the US-side, under the guidance of State Secretary Pompeo, reintroduced negotiation patterns that already had contributed to the failure of the 6PT and the so-called Leap Day Agreement. While North Korea was supposed to accept an irreversible, verifiable and complete denuclearization, it would, in return, receive economic concessions, while sanctions would be lifted. The approach did not only underestimate realistic time frames of denuclearization processes in general but also ignored North Korea’s demand for a peace regime that would replace the existing Armistice Treaty.
North Korea’s protests and alternative offers were conveyed through South Korea’s President Moon, who increasingly had to engage in shuttle diplomacy. Indeed, the South Korean government chose a separate path to its American allies in order to gain sustainable results. Inter-Korean rapprochement was separated from US-North Korea negotiations, while Seoul is trying to gradually occupy the driver seat.
Already in his trend-setting Berlin speech, President Moon indicated his intentions of approaching a rapprochement and peace-process on the Korean Peninsula. Based on the German experience during the Cold War, this, among other things, would need international support. In his speech, he stated his goal of gradually establishing South Korea’s central role in any future process. In face of the US’ obstructive approach, the Moon government has been forced to set the agenda and pace of developments on the Peninsula itself. In inter-Korean relations, both sides have increased military cooperation, reestablished rail-connections, set up a liaison office in Kaesong, while plans for economic cooperation initiatives are already on the table. In so doing, Seoul has gradually been testing the ground for how far it can go and whether the international community and, more importantly, the US would follow suit.
As far as the international community is concerned, Seoul has so far not received the support that it had hoped for. With the exception of China and Russia, the US strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ based on upholding multi- and unilateral economic sanctions was not put up for debate so far. However, besides maintaining sanctions that are targeted at non-proliferation, there has not been any reason to uphold sanctions that would stand in the way of intensifying an inter-Korean rapprochement process.
The reasons for this failure have been manifold. Proponents of the international arms control system have been holding on to the idea that sanctions can only be lifted if North Korea complies with international norms and UN Security Council Resolutions. This kind of approach has ignored the possibility that a conflict resolution approach could lay the basis for Pyongyang to rejoin international treaties and fulfil its obligations.
From a global point of view, key players such as the EU and its member states or China have been involved in increasingly conflicting relations with the US. The willingness to add controversy about Korean affairs to the agenda has been low so far. While facing an all-out trade war with the US, Beijing might even be willing to make concessions on the maximum pressure approach and economic sanctions. This trend, should it continue, would leave the Koreas in the lurch and eventually bring progress to a hold.
Overall, the Korean Peninsula is still facing a historical opportunity to achieve peace. This, however, will only be possible if the international communities in the UN and EU empower the Koreas, enabling them to set their own agenda towards stabilization and integration. Even then, it remains an open question whether present and coming US Administrations are willing to invest in long-term agenda setting. Only by accepting a diplomatic detour and engaging in a comprehensive peace process will achieve the declared main goal of denuclearization.
* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)