Afew weeks after India’s first nuclear test in May 1974, the US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, sat in a meeting with the state department’s director of policy planning, Winston Lord. “Once a nation has crossed the (nuclear) threshold," Lord told Kissinger, “it is very hard to turn it back." This was less apparent in 1974 but is well understood today. Even so, the US had hoped that North Korea would commit to a complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of its nuclear weapons programme by the end of Tuesday’s historic Donald Trump-Kim Jong-Un summit in Singapore.
In the joint statement released after the summit, the North Korean leader agreed to much less—“to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula". In fact, the meaning of the phrase “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" is very different for the US and North Korea. The Singapore summit did nothing to bridge that gap. In return for Kim’s vague commitment, the US agreed to provide security guarantees to North Korea.
Neither side can reliably be expected to stick to its side of the bargain if the other side blinks. Kim has no reason to think his fate will be different from Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi if he gives up his nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the US too knows, despite what Trump insists, that Kim wants de facto nuclear status for North Korea in the name of security guarantees.
North Korea has similarly committed to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in the past as well. The only thing that may be different now is that it does not need to conduct further nuclear or missile tests to prove its capabilities. There were other commitments in Singapore that don’t find a mention in the joint statement. In an interaction with the press after the summit, Trump announced the end of “expensive" and “provocative" military exercises with South Korea. This was the only major concession of the day. All Kim agreed to was shutting down a missile engine testing site which he mostly probably no longer needs. Moreover, North Korea has multiple such sites and it isn’t clear which one is going to be shut down.
So the results of the Singapore summit essentially boil down to the “freeze for freeze" proposal that China and Russia had earlier put forward. North Korea will freeze its nuclear weapons and missile development programme—it anyway had declared successful completion of its nuclear weapons programme back in November 2017—in return for the US halting its military exercises with South Korea.
Beijing should be terribly happy with this result. China has achieved the weakening of American alliances in the region—Japan too will now be worried about the prospects of its own military exercises with the US—without even being part of the Singapore summit. Beijing has already started making noises in support of easing international sanctions against the North Korean regime.
The star of the show in Singapore was undoubtedly Kim. He successfully demonstrated to the world that nuclear weapons can be used to achieve multiple objectives. One, with security guarantees, he has essentially secured his regime’s survival. Two, Kim got to negotiate with the US president as an equal—a privilege that was denied to his predecessors. So nuclear weapons’ utility in enhancing international prestige also stands established.
Three, by initiating a peace process, Kim is assured of some loosening of international sanctions. China is not just talking of lifting sanctions, it has already eased some restrictions to border trade in the last couple of months. Trump too told the press that he did not apply 300 newer sanctions—“very big ones, powerful ones"—in the lead-up to the Singapore summit.
Four, Kim showed that nuclear weapons don’t just deter, they can also compel your adversary in certain circumstances. By making the US stop its military exercises with South Korea, North Korea has proved that overt threats or signalling are not always required to achieve successful nuclear compellence.
If nuclear capability has helped Kim achieve so much, how can one expect him to give up his bombs so easily?
The Singapore summit was also a lesson for Trump. That he had to give up his “maximum pressure" campaign and America’s military exercises with an important ally in return for a vague promise of denuclearization must make him realize that it is easier to criticize deals concluded by former US presidents than to negotiate a better deal himself.
His entire criticism of the Iran nuclear deal concluded in Barack Obama’s tenure was misplaced and unnecessary. In fact, the Iran deal was much better than what Trump has so far achieved with North Korea. To be sure, the Iran deal was negotiated before Tehran had a credible nuclear deterrent. However, Trump withdrawing the US from the Iran nuclear deal and accommodating North Korea’s interests clearly conveys to the Iranian leadership (and others) that nuclear weapons beget respect. Recent developments are bound to have profound consequences for the US-led non-proliferation order.
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