What’s at stake in Singapore

What’s at stake in Singapore

By Luke Vargas   
Published
Courtesy: Government of Singapore

Does Trump expect too much from his meeting with Kim Jung Un? What does Kim really want? Three experts help us answer these and other questions swirling around Singapore.

SINGAPORE — For months, President Donald Trump built up expectations that North Korea’s nuclear program could be quickly negotiated away in historic talks with Kim Jong Un.

But with mere hours to go before Trump and Kim meet face-to-face in Singapore, expectations have shifted considerably. Where once there was talk of a formal nuclear deal swapping North Korea’s surrender of its weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief, now there’s talk of a “phased” nuclear handover encouraged by U.S. security guarantees.

Peel back the curtain — at least metaphorically — on the Singapore summit, and the unique demands and desires of China, South Korea and Japan also emerge, revealing just how many parties want to shape Trump’s high-stakes diplomatic encounter.

To give us a sense of what’s at stake in U.S.-North Korea diplomatic talks, we asked three experts in nuclear non-proliferation and East Asia what to expect in Singapore.

(This radio broadcast is available for streaming on iTunes/Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher)


President Trump meets with Prime Mininster of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong. June 12, 2018. Courtesy: Office of the Prime Minister
President Donald Trump meets with Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday in Singapore. (Courtesy: Office of the Prime Minister)

Is President Trump racing toward a bad deal? Are his expectations too high?

Joe Cirincione, president, Ploughshares Fund:

“I think he’s actually done a good job of lowering the expectations that he unrealistically realized he raised. So he’s now correcting his own mistakes.

He realizes this is going to take several meetings, this is going to be a long process. Look, North Korea has a massive nuclear complex. This isn’t Libya, where they just had a few centrifuges and didn’t have any radioactive material in them and just had centrifuges in boxes.

You want to take that down? Even if you decided you wanted to do it all at once, it would still take years. This is a highly complex task.”

Sharon Squassoni, research professor, Institute for International Science and Technology Policy, George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs:

“Like Joe, I am not entirely negative about the Trump Process, if you can call it a Trump Process. Sometimes it can be useful to ditch protocol in order to make progress.

Now, having said that, as a former nuclear weapons negotiator, there are a lot of details that you want to be sure of when you’re going through this process. And so we want to make sure that those details don’t get lost in this rush to come to some kind of an agreement.”

Naoko Aoki, research associate, Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM):

“I do agree that the stakes are high and I think it is dangerous if this fails spectacularly, you would have exhausted your diplomatic options.

But on the other hand, some good could come out of it if President Trump and Kim Jong Un could agree to a broad goal of denuclearization and a fundamental change in the relationship of the two countries as a goal for the future and start a process, set the stage for work by lower level officials how to get there. That might be a good thing.”

North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in during a face-to-face meeting at the DMZ on April 27, 2018. Courtesy: Cheong Wa Dae
North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in during a face-to-face meeting at the DMZ on Friday. (Courtesy: Cheong Wa Dae)

What does North Korea want?

Joe Cirincione: Assurances the U.S. is playing fairly.

“These are two countries that fundamentally mistrust each other, who believe each other is to blame for the failure of past agreements. And North Korea’s got a good case there.

You think that North Korea’s cheated on every one of its agreements? They think that we’ve backed out of every one of our agreements, and in fact we have. We pulled the plug on some of these past deals, not them. So you’re going to have to give up some weapons and get up some sanctions relief, give up some facilities and get some new declarations from the United States.”

Sharon Squassoni: To be treated like ‘an equal’ on the world stage.

“Remember that North Korea is coming to the table, it believes, as an equal to the United States. Look at it from their perspective. They do not see themselves as Libya.

Trump has agreed to have a summit with Kim, so they’re looking at that as an indication of their new status. They tested  they say and we think  a thermonuclear fusion device last year and they supposedly, reportedly can hit the United States with intercontinental-range missiles.

And so just to bring these very one-sided issues to the table like abductees and human rights, I wouldn’t put it past them to say, ‘Hey America, what about your human rights problem?’ I think there will be quite a push from them that for everything we do, we want something from the U.S.”

Naoko Aoki: To be seen as coming to the negotiating table of its own accord.

“There are two major schools of thought on why North Korea is doing what it’s doing. In one view, Kim Jong Un is responding to U.S. pressure. According to this view, economic sanctions were hurting North Korea and Kim was worried about U.S. military threats so he decided to seek better relations.

The second view is that Kim is more confident now and that because of what his country has achieved in terms of nuclear missile development and now wants to focus on developing the North Korean economy. So this is more out of confidence  they have their own timetable.

I think it’s dangerous to assume that Kim is coming to the table just because of U.S. coercion. But nevertheless, I think that the concessions that the Americans can offer are fairly similar to what we’ve done in the past. That would include elements of an ultimate peace agreement, that includes easing sanctions and also security assurances.”

North Korean state television shows a November 2017 missile launch. Courtesy: KCNA
North Korean state television shows a November 2017 missile launch. (Courtesy: KCNA)

What’s more realistic? The U.S. demand for complete denuclearization up front, or North Korea’s idea of a “phased” process?

Joe Cirincione:

“There’s no way that President Trump is going to fly home from the summit with Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons in the cargo hold of Air Force One. It’s just not going to happen.

The North Koreans have learned the lessons of Iraq and Libya and the Iran deal. And that is: if you give up your weapons, if you give up your capabilities, America will kill you. And so they are going to be very reluctant to accede to a demand that, for example that John Bolton had put out  or for that matter, Senate Democrats in a letter in the past couple of days  that they completely dismantle lock, stop and barrel, and then we will lift sanctions.

No, no, no. This is going to have to be a phased approach.”

Naoko Aoki explains that two past deals between the U.S. and North Korea  the 1994 Agreed Framework and the Six Party Talks process in the 2000’s involving South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan  were phased agreements, and offer a model to replicate.

“The concept of both agreements involved North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons capabilities in exchange for better relations and economic aid in the form of energy aid. And they were both phased, and that’s the part where I think we can learn from, that any process would be a phased process where North Korea does something and the other parties do something in return.”

Sharon Squassoni:

“The real problem that I see is a return by this administration to the language of the past: this Comprehensive, Verifiable, Irreversible Denuclearization that everyone’s talking about. This was a phrase the Bush Administration came up with. It was never workable, it was never practical. You will never completely and irreversibly get rid of the nuclear weapons program, unless you somehow pick up all the people who were ever involved in it and ship them to an isolated island. It’s just not going to happen.

To hold up that kind of really, really high standard that we have no way of meeting, that no one has a way of meeting is not constructive, and that’s an understatement.”

Subtle cues diplomacy is on track

Joe Cirincione: New diplomatic ties, however informal, between the U.S. and North Korea.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we start with some of the easy things here, for example, opening up a U.S. interests section in Pyongyang  the way we had one in Havana for many years — and then reciprocally, a Korean interests section here in the United States as a step toward a process.

That would accomplish many objectives including establishing a nice communications conduit so you can continue the process in real time  you don’t have to keep flying across the Pacific to do it. And it would be the kind of step Kim needs to assure himself and some of his critics in the regime that he’s on to something and the U.S. is serious this time.”

Naoko Aoki: Vocal buy-in from all parties with a stake in North Korea’s future.

“Because I started my career as a journalist and covered the Six Party Talks, I am looking at not just the content of the agreement  which not everybody is going to happy with, whatever it is, because there are always people who want more  but how do we stick with the agreement, we meaning everybody  the North Koreans, the United States, Japan, China, South Korea and Russia.

How do we make sure that all parties stick to this? And it’s going to be a long process.”

Sharon Squassoni: Embedding North Korea within international organizations.

“My work for decades has focused on international solutions to proliferation problems. I’d be interested to see if there’s a way that we can use existing agreements like the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty or the Chemical Weapons Convention or the Biological Weapons Convention  these existing treaties, or on the flip side, assistance organizations  to help bring North Korea more into the mainstream.

Kim Jong Un can destroy his test sites and we might feel a little bit better, but I’d feel a whole lot better if they signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and we could have inspectors in there.

I’ll be curious to see if there’s any pressure or encouragement on North Korea to start becoming a more responsible member of the international community.”

Kim Jong Un is greeted by Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan upon arrival in the country. June 10, 2018. Courtesy: MFA Singapore
Kim Jong Un is greeted by Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan upon arrival in the country on Sunday. June 10, 2018. CMFA Singapore

Wild cards to keep an eye on

Joe Cirincione: President Trump.

“There are a dozen ways this thing could blow up. But it’s also possible that Trump could stumble into a good deal here, or at least the beginning of a good deal.

It’s quite possible that Donald Trump, by being unconventional, by flipping the script, by putting the summit meeting first in the process, by having talk of a peace treaty first in the process, he might actually – however inadvertently – be creating the conditions that might actually allow North Korea to take some bold steps.”

Naoko Aoki: Japan.

“Japan has been largely left out of the process and is worried that its interests will be sacrificed in the upcoming summit.

One of Japan’s priorities is solving the abductions of Japanese citizens [by North Korea in the 1970’s and 80’s, an issue North Korea is refusing to discuss], and also the medium and short-ranged missiles that a threat to Japan [but which Japan fears President Trump will overlook, given his focus on eliminating ICBMs capable of striking the U.S.].”

Sharon Squassoni says that even if President Trump inks a deal with North Korea, implementation is where deals live or die. And that hands Congress – driven by its own political whims and capable of enacting sanctions in defiance of the president – an unusually large role in determining the fate of U.S.-North Korea relations.

“The recent letter that the Senate Democrats sent to the Trump Administration was kind of a shot across the bow. Congress has always been very concerned by North Korea’s human rights record, and that is one thing that is likely to come up, but how you resolve that is really beyond me.

Congress could come back and say: we don’t see North Korean behavior in these other areas as meeting our standards, hence we’re reimposing our sanctions. Congress can always put sanctions in place. Usually they leave a little wiggle room for the executive branch to make waivers, but they can also tighten the screws and make it impossible for presidents to make those waivers. I hate to say it, but that could be a very likely outcome”


Use the audio player at the top of this post to listen to or download our full interview with Joe Cirincione, Naoko Aoki and Sharon Squassoni.


“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas at U.N. Headquarters in New York.

Subscribe to weekly episodes of “Wake” on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Google Play, and follow the broadcast on Twitter @WakeOnAir.

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