President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un have bested their doubters and not only smiled and shaken hands but have signed off on a document committing to the Holy Grail of contemporary diplomacy — the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
Both will be able to go home with a win in their pocket and great visuals for their respective masses. But what comes next, and how easily is this hard work undone?
The fact that the meeting happened at all is in itself remarkable, and the optics were good for both nations. For Kim, this proved that the small-time dictator of an impoverished country could stand tall — metaphorically speaking — next to a person who occupies an office usually described as the most powerful in the world. In turn, Trump (72), was met with mild gestures of age-respecting obeisance from the 34-year-old leader. The US-DPRK flags were evenly matched in their resplendent red, white and blue and the whole setting gave an air of pomp and to what was once a prison island.
And then there was that statement! A (somewhat oddly worded) document signed by both Trump and Kim committing both leaders to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, which is what the talks were intended to achieve. Even a casual reading of the document would, however, indicate that it was hastily drafted after a preliminary agreement on some basic issues — one wonders where the US KIA/MIA come from 66 years after the Korean War ended — and it was entirely, as expected, devoid of detail.
It was, if nothing else, a statement of intentions and a public display of goodwill, which both their audiences will be wanting to see. For Trump, it may establish that what might charitably be called his unorthodox political style can actually yield results. For Kim, he can return to Pyonyang having bested those domestic critics not already permanently silenced.
For those on the Korean Peninsula, and elsewhere, for whom the chill of nuclear threat sent a shiver up their spine, they might relax a little now, basking in the warm afterglow of “made for TV” bonhomie photo opportunities. But bigger, and longer term, problems loom.
Problems on the horizon
As already discussed, what “denuclearisation” actually means for North Korea might be different to what it means for the US. A removal of nuclear weapons is one thing; a removal of technological capacity to make them is quite another.
Then there is the security quid pro quo: North Korea will want a significant draw-down of US military presence of the Korean Peninsula and possibly also in Japan. In conventional military terms, this will leave North Korea in a relatively enhanced strategic position, given its commitment to conventional militarisation compared to that of South Korea, and Japan, both of which have long relied on the US providing them with strategic muscle.
Following this is the question of verification, and whether North Korea will really allow unfettered access to weapons inspectors. This is attended by the question of how such access will be verified, given that North Korea likely has some “unknown unknowns” along with its “known unknowns”.
Lastly, US strategic thinkers will no doubt be pleased to see a scaling back of tensions in North-East Asia that, a little more than six months ago, looked to be bringing the region to the brink of disaster. But, by doing so, the US will have to reduce its military presence in that part of the world, already agreed to in part by ending war games with South Korea.
A large part of the reason which Kim Jong-Un came to the table was because China pushed him to do so, facilitated by South Korean President Moon Jae-In. China has its own game plan, of which North Korea is only a part.
If the US agrees to denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula, including its own draw-down of troops, it will have resolved a problem, but not the larger greater strategic balance of power. In short, any reduction in the US military presence can only enhance China’s relative strategic presence. This is the opposite of what the US is otherwise trying to achieve.
So there have been smiles and handshakes with red, white and blue flags in abundance, but the hard part of the process is yet to reveal itself.
When US strategic thinkers factor in China’s position in the region following an effective US draw-down, they might seek to reconfigure aspects of the prospective agreement. This is where it could come unstuck. For now, however, we have that fateful proposition of peace in our time. The real game, however, is just beginning.
Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s Professor of International Politics.