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Trump’s agreement with Kim is a step backward, experts say

June 15,2018
Their summit was large on theatrics, but the outcome was short on details.

Now, the joint statement signed by U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is getting flak from American pundits and academics for its palpable lack of specifics on how to move forward with North Korea’s denuclearization.

Although experts have acknowledged the historic nature of the meeting, they say the signed statement appears to have taken a step back from previous agreements between the two countries. Past agreements outlined detailed measures that Washington and Pyongyang would take toward eliminating the North’s nuclear capacity.

In a news conference following the summit in Singapore, an elated Trump applauded the joint statement as having “reaffirmed [Kim’s] unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” calling it a “very, very comprehensive document.”

The agreement, however, contained little more than affirmations toward a peace regime, normalization of relations and North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization in vague language, inviting heavy criticism from the media and North Korea experts as lacking practical value.

A New York Times report on Tuesday characterized the agreement as “a page and a half of diplomatic language recycled from statements negotiated by the North over the last two decades,” pointing out that it contained no mention of North Korea’s missiles or a date for follow-up talks.

Katherine Moon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy, called the summit underwhelming in an interview with CNN. “Their signed joint statement lists aspirations,” she said, “and without a single word of substantive commitment by either side.”

Indeed, tracing back the two-decade history of negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington reveals how alarmingly hollow the Trump-Kim agreement appears to be in light of the stupendous challenge that lies ahead for securing North Korea’s denuclearization.

Arguably the most fruitful of all precedents of U.S. engagement with North Korea was the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated in Geneva, Switzerland, between the governments of then-U.S. President Bill Clinton and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the current leader’s father.

President Trump referred to this deal during his news conference by saying “[North Korea] took billions of dollars and nothing happened.”

In truth, the Agreed Framework stipulated that the United States provide North Korea with $4 billion in the form of heavy oil shipments and construction of two light-water reactors in exchange for Pyongyang dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

Most notably, the two parties agreed on an action-for-action process involving multiple inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor the dismantlement process.

The agreement fell apart, however, when a Republican-dominated Congress declined to approve funding for the light-water reactors in North Korea, which led Pyongyang to reactivate its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon in 1999.

Despite the setback, the Clinton administration attempted to resume its engagement with the North by receiving North Korean Gen. Jo Myong-rok at the White House in October 2000. Jo signed a joint communique with Clinton during the visit.

In it, North Korea agreed not to test any long-range missiles during negotiations with the United States, a contrast to Trump’s pledge to halt “war games” between the United States and South Korea while denuclearization talks with Pyongyang are in progress.

The communique also contained the United States’ appreciation for North Korea’s cooperation in recovering the remains of American servicemen missing from the Korean War, mirroring the only specific clause of the Trump-Kim agreement from Tuesday.

Despite the goodwill that the communique embodied, enforcement of its promises went to naught after George W. Bush was elected in November 2000, after which the United States ended its engagement with the North while labeling it as part of the “axis of evil.”

But Washington once again reversed its policy toward Pyongyang in August 2003, when it participated in several rounds of multilateral talks involving South Korea, China, Japan and Russia - the negotiations known as the Six-Party Talks.

The discussions culminated in 2005 with an agreement in which North Korea promised to abandon nuclear arms development by returning to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - from which it withdrew in January 2003 after the 1994 Agreed Framework fell apart - and allow monitors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to re-enter the country.

In exchange, the pact affirmed that Pyongyang would receive food and energy assistance. It also promised to negotiate a permanent peace arrangement on the peninsula, with the United States reiterating that it had no intention to “attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons,” using the initials of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Despite upholding the principle of “commitment for commitment, action for action,” the 2005 joint statement followed precedent and was again abandoned after North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006 in retaliation against the U.S. Treasury Department freezing North Korean assets in a Macau bank.

Coming 13 years since the failure of this last bargain between Washington and Pyongyang, the historic summit in Singapore stands out as an accomplishment in personal diplomacy with the leaders of two bitter adversaries meeting face-to-face for the first time in history.

Nevertheless, the written agreement from the encounter has been too short on substance to convince North Korea watchers that the regime stands prepared to relinquish its current nuclear capacity.

The fact that all previous agreements have resulted in failure despite containing much greater detail testifies to just how tenuous the present current of peace may be.

Future U.S.-North Korea discussions between high-level or working-level officials - or even between the two leaders themselves - bear the obligation of consolidating that conciliatory mood.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, CHAE IN-TAEK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]