A peaceful Korean peninsula is a big plus in the security matrix of Asia. An end to 67 years of hostility between North Korea on the one side and the US-Japan-South Korea troika on the other will provide a big boost to peace in the region. The first-ever summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un at Sentosa Island in Singapore is a watershed moment in strategic affairs. Trump and Kim’s meeting, that spread over five hours in different formats, is a big movement forward. As the North Korean leader jokingly told newsmen, his meeting with the US president was straight out of a potboiler and fantasy. His father and grandfather, the earlier communist dictators, had been unable to pull off such a big coup after the Korean War of 1950-53.
Sceptics notwithstanding, drawing up an agreed text that outlines a roadmap for ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear arms and arsenal is a huge achievement. Denuclearising the Korean Peninsula does not mean merely destroying 10 nuclear bombs that North Korea developed with 50 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium or dismantling the nuclear weapons engine testing sites and the associated paraphernalia. The agreement between the two countries also means the withdrawal of the nuclear umbrella cover provided by America to its allies in the region — Japan and South Korea. The withdrawal of 28,500 troops, US warships, fighter aircraft and submarines will go a long way towards bringing about peace in the region. The US withdrew some troops in the ’70s but its commitment to Japan and South Korea’s security kept American bases operative in the region.
There is inevitably a hype surrounding the meeting. But many specialists on North Korean affairs have struck a cautionary note. According to them, the summit could at best be a starting point for denuclearisation of the region and troops withdrawal by the US. Differing perceptions on denuclearising the region implies intensive work ahead for secretary of state Mike Pompeo and an official designated by the North Korean dictator. What seems to have come as a surprise for many security hawks, and surely Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean president Moon Jae In, is Trump’s decision to bring to an immediate end to the ‘war games’ in the peninsular region that had irked North Korea.
There is an understanding within diplomatic circles that the Trump-Kim joint statement does not go much beyond what was already agreed upon at an April meeting between the two Korean leaders who met at the common border. Chinese president Xi Jingping’s invisible hand seems to have quietly steered Kim to the negotiating table with Trump. Reports that the first draft of the joint statement was readied by Beijing may well be true.
What stands out glaringly in the agreement is that no timelines have been set for lifting political, economic and diplomatic sanctions against North Korea. Even though China had pushed to get the sanctions lifted immediately after the Trump-Kim summit, this may not happen in a hurry. In fact, sanctions on Pyongyang got linked to Kim moving forward on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and infrastructure. Most perplexing, though, is the lack of definition, eye on detail or work programme as the immediate fallout from the Trump-Kim summit that ended in less than half a day. While security guarantees offered to North Korea have been unspecified, there is no programme for complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of nuclear arms in the signed document. Nevertheless, these baby steps towards establishing a peaceful Asia and must be hailed.