After one year and a half of mutual threats of a nuclear holocaust, coupled with promises of peace and reconciliation, the whole world stood witness to a summit unlike any other in the post-World War II period, save the one that had brought together former US president Richard Nixon and the late Mao Zedong of China in the early 1970s.
On 12 June, in the resort island of Sentosa in Singapore, US President Donald Trump shook hands with the uncontested leader of North Korea, Chairman Kim Jong-un.
It was a handshake that could lead to a permanent peace and security in the Korean Peninsula, thus bringing to an end the Korean War, that had paused with the Armistice Agreement in 1953 signed by the United States, China and North Korea.
Alternatively, this significant promise could dissipate and give rise to a more tumultuous and dangerous stage in American-North Korean relations and in the whole of northeast Asia as well.
The Sentosa Summit, unprecedented for a sitting American president with a leader of North Korea, ended with a joint statement that spoke of American security guarantees for North Korea in return for an unwavering North Korean commitment to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. The joint statement spoke of American-North Korean support for the Panmunjom Declaration of 27 April 2018 that was signed between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un.
The reference to the declaration means that questions of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula shall be determined by the parties concerned, those that had gone to war in 1950, the two Koreas, the United States, China and Russia, the former Soviet Union.
In addition to Japan. President Trump had received Japanese Prime Minister Shenzo Abe at the White House the week before the Sentosa Summit, to make sure that Japanese security concerns would be taken into consideration in any future agreement between Washington and Pyongyang.
According to the joint statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would meet with a “relevant” North Korean official, to be designated later on, to discuss the way forward and the concrete steps to be taken on the road of denuclearising the Korean Peninsula as well as the needed security guarantees on the part of the United States to North Korea.
These talks, once started, would usher in the “process” that President Trump has talked about before going to Singapore to meet the North Korean leader, and during his hour-long press conference that followed the Sentosa Summit.
In this respect, to talk about a “process” rather than a swift denuclearisation of only North Korea, was a major concession by the United States to the North Koreans and, accordingly, a major diplomatic success for Chairman Kim Jong-un. Never before has any US administration spoken of a process in denuclearisation that, by definition, necessitates time that could be measured in years and not in months.
And even though this concession by President Trump has been widely criticised, in and outside the United States, it could still prove in the long run the key to a successful implementation of the joint statement of 12 June. It would be some kind of a step-by-step diplomacy that would assure North Korea that denuclearising won’t be equivalent to its disappearance or a prelude to regime change in Pyongyang.
The detractors of President Trump in the United States accused him of providing Kim Jong-un with a golden chance to claim international legitimacy without getting anything in return. Some of them questioned the credibility of the North Korean commitment to denuclearise, stressing the fact that what was agreed to in Sentosa was nothing new.
On many previous occasions, they reneged on past promises of denuclearisation. So, there is nothing that would prevent them from walking out in the future from any new agreement to this effect.
Of course, the argument could not be swept aside for it is true that during the rule of both Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, and his late father Kim Jong Il, North Korea had been party to various declarations and agreements to drop its nuclear programme as well as its ballistic missile development programmes. The Agreed Framework of 1994 between North Korea and the Clinton administration is a case in point.
But circumstances have changed inside North Korea, and in the relations between the great and regional powers that have direct security interests with northeast Asia, and on the Korean Peninsula. Add to that the sanctions regime that the Trump administration, with the concurrence of the major international powers that have always stood by North Korea, namely China and Russia, in the UN Security Council, had worked to the point of choking North Korea economically and financially. It is being said that in addition to the sanctions already approved and enforced, the Trump administration had readied another set of very tough sanctions on North Korea while still preparing for the Sentosa Summit, to be activated in case North Korea wouldn’t accept to denuclearise.
In the final analysis, the two Koreas, the United States, and China in the background, succeeded in stopping the spiral of a nuclear confrontation in the Korean Peninsula.
Early on in the Trump administration, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson emphasised that the Obama policy of “strategic patience” was over, and that North Korea had no other option but to accept to denuclearise or else.
This “else”, the use of force, was a highly uncertain road, not only to the United States, but to international peace and security. And North Korea was not alone. China had made clear last August that it wouldn’t stand still if North Korea would come under attack. The message was clear, Any American attack on North Korea would be considered an attack on China.
In other words, the recreation of the battle lines of the Korean War. But whereas the war of 1950-1953 on the Korean Peninsula was conventional, the hypothetical second wave would easily become a nuclear war, something the world has never seen before.
The Sentosa Summit is a historic chance for peace. Let us keep our fingers crossed and wish the American and North Korean negotiators, who will be shortly tasked with agreeing on concrete steps to carry out American and North Korean commitments stated in the joint statement on 12 June, perseverance and success.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: The morning after