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Singapore, 12 June: what’s the deal?

Posted By on May 22, 2018 @ 14:30

Despite evidence of belated second thoughts by the principal players (see here [1] and here [2]), a summit meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong‑un is still likely to occur in Singapore on 12 June. In a recent column [3] for the New York Times, David Sanger outlined the US administration’s super-sized expectations: that Kim will agree on denuclearisation, and accept a schedule that would see ‘some number of nuclear weapons’ handed over during the following six months, while American inspectors would enjoy virtually unlimited access to oversee the closure and dismantlement of key North Korean production facilities.

But Pyongyang’s hostile reaction last week to talk of the ‘Libyan model’ suggests that if Kim Jong‑un believes in North Korean denuclearisation at all, it’s only on the never-never plan. He might well entertain his own inflated expectations. North Korea has long fancied a version of the US–India nuclear deal for itself: one that recognises and accepts North Korea as a legitimate nuclear state; enmeshes the country in broader patterns of economic growth; and dilutes the security threat posed to the North by the presence of US forces in Northeast Asia.

So what should we expect the summit to deliver? Some things are relatively clear: a summit that produces merely a statement of principles won’t cut the mustard. Been there, done that—see the joint declaration of principles agreed during the Six‑Party Talks in September 2005 [4]. Writing it out again would be a waste of time, paper and ink.

Similarly, an outcome that pushes all the big decisions down the track, and depends upon the long-winded meetings of factotums, would also be seen as a failure—not least because Trump has cast both himself and Kim as history makers, not as meeting convenors. True, the natural order of things has been inverted here, because successful summits usually follow—and are the products of—the heavy lifting of numberless sherpas.

Obviously in this case a successful summit would need to set in train a program of engagement and activity, but Trump and Kim would probably both want to be associated with a grander outcome than a call for sherpas to gather.

So, not just a statement of principles, and not just a program of future meetings. Nor can it be a summit that merely rubberstamps actions already undertaken, such as the closure of the North Korean nuclear test site [5] at Punggye-ri. Closing the site is a useful indicator of intent, but reversible.

Some evidence suggests the North Koreans might be prepared [6] to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, but I suspect they’d want a joint commitment from Washington to do the same—and that proposal would probably die in the US Senate.

Then, of course, there are the tests that most commentators will apply to determine whether or not Kim is serious about restraining his nuclear program. For Washington, an outcome that doesn’t bear down on the threat to the US homeland (from North Korea’s Hwasong‑14 and Hwasong‑15 ICBMs) won’t be acceptable. North Korea might not, in the first instance, have to surrender the missiles themselves—but probably would have to surrender (in that elliptical phraseology) ‘some number’ of guidance systems.

Thermonuclear warheads might well fall in the same category. Complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation is clearly a bridge too far for Pyongyang, but the Americans will want—initially—to ‘corral’ the North Korean program to the level of threat it posed in 2016, when it had a limited-yield fission warhead and no proven long-range ballistic missile capabilities.

Washington has also got to be looking for a way of ‘turning off the tap’: stopping the production of fissile materials (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) and the manufacture of a range of different ballistic missiles. It may take some time to determine Pyongyang’s existing fissile material and missile inventories, but a key priority will be to halt further growth in those inventories. Stopping plutonium production would be especially valuable because plutonium is a more energetic material than enriched uranium.

On the missile side, the Americans are probably hoping to see a near-term dismantlement of the ICBM factory. Further down the track, they’re probably keen to see North Korea return to far more limited ballistic-missile capabilities—though I’m wary of using the phrase ‘the Libyan model’, that model’s endorsement of Missile Technology Control Regime thresholds as an acceptable missile constraint might also apply here.

That’s a huge agenda. How much of it will actually form part of a summit outcome? Probably less than we’d hope. And even if all of it is on offer, it might well be at a price—US withdrawal from the peninsula?—that not all in Washington would be willing to pay (though Trump himself might be).

Still, just as Goldilocks eventually found a bowl of porridge that was neither too hot nor too cold, we should anticipate a ‘deal’ in Singapore—one that erases some of North Korea’s recent gains in exchange for various rewards. Much less likely is the prospect of a ‘grand bargain’ that shapes the future strategic environment in Northeast Asia. Neither side seems quite ready for that.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as finding a ‘win‑win’ solution for Trump and Kim. Any deal is likely to touch on the interests of all parties to the Six-Party Talks—so we can expect all of them to be leaning on Washington and Pyongyang to find a ‘win-win-win-win-win-win’ solution. That’s a burden neither Trump nor Kim will be keen to embrace.

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URLs in this post:

[1] here: https://www.cnbc.com/video/2018/05/16/north-korea-threatens-to-scrap-summit.html

[2] here: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/trump-willing-to-walk-away-from-north-korea-summit-says-pence-10255976

[3] recent column: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/20/us/politics/trump-north-korea-nuclear.html?rref=collection%2Fbyline%2Fdavid-e.-sanger

[4] agreed during the Six‑Party Talks in September 2005: https://www.state.gov/p/eap/regional/c15455.htm

[5] closure of the North Korean nuclear test site: https://allthingsnuclear.org/dwright/closing-nk-test-site

[6] might be prepared: https://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/1205255/north-korea-the-ctbt-and-maybe-the-end-of-the-nuclear-testing-era/

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