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Despite murky details, summit sends NK clear message: Welcome to the club

Many nuclear policy analysts are bemoaning the statement’s lack of specifics. But the summit itself recast North Korea as a hermit kingdom no more – and signaled a faster sunset of American power in Asia.

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President Trump walks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Sentosa Island, Singapore, June 12.

Evan Vucci/AP

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It was a moment virtually unimaginable just a few weeks ago – and perhaps best described by Kim Jong-un, the leader of a pariah state that not so long ago the United States branded as “evil.”

As the North Korean leader shook hands with President Trump in front of a backdrop of alternating American and North Korean flags, Mr. Kim noted that many viewers around the world would think it was a scene from a “science fiction movie.”

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And like any good science fiction movie, the improbable summit in Singapore Tuesday served as a reminder of how abruptly and drastically the world can change.

Recommended:On sidelines of two-man summit, North Korea’s neighbors watch carefully

“The world will see a major change,” Kim said as he signed the summit’s joint statement. Added Mr. Trump, “I think our whole relationship with North Korea and the Korean Peninsula is going to be a very much different situation than it has in the past.”

What had been dubbed a denuclearization summit was actually very light on the specifics, beyond its quid-pro-quo joint statement twinning North Korea’s commitment to denuclearize with US security commitments for Kim. Within hours of the summit’s close, many nuclear policy analysts were bemoaning the lack of details and timelines – and concluding that so far the Singapore agreement didn’t look much different from past “denuclearization” accords struck between the two longtime adversaries.

But that does not mean the summit was any less of the watershed moment the two leaders proclaimed – and avidly portrayed. 

Indeed the leafy confines of a Singapore resort hotel are likely to be remembered as the venue where a number of genies were let out of the bottle – most likely never to be stuffed back in.

Those unbottled genies range from a pariah state assuming VIP status on the world stage, to the American retreat from its perch as an Asian power.

'Coming-out party'

First, North Korea is the hermit kingdom no more – as so dramatically illustrated by Kim’s willingness to make a first-ever official trip in international airspace. Having received the legitimacy of an American president’s handshake and the public exposure afforded rock stars (complete with selfies), Kim is unlikely to ever again face such international isolation.

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A relieved China is already loosening up on implementation of the Trump-authored United Nations sanctions that helped nudge Kim to make a new “denuclearization” deal. A Kim-Putin summit is thought to be next – not to mention Trump’s pledge of a Kim White House visit “at the appropriate time.”

A place on the UN dais in September could be next up for Kim –  perhaps followed by a side trip to Washington.

Second, North Korea is heretofore a de facto nuclear power – a status Pyongyang has claimed (now enshrined in its constitution) and craved for years, but which is only now gaining international recognition.

By acknowledging that denuclearizing North Korea would be a long and complicated process, the US is inadvertently recognizing that the North's nuclear arsenal and programs are sizable, diversified, and complex – and encompass all the dimensions of a nuclear power.

The Singapore summit was “a big coming-out party for North Korea as the latest nuclear-weapons state,” says Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow in Korean and Asian affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. “We may not accept it formally, but we just threw a big event for Kim Jong-un [that suggests] the world is already recognizing North Korea” as a nuclear power.

Any project for North Korea’s denuclearization remains purely “aspirational” in the summit’s wake, as Dr. Terry notes – which means the world will have to deal with North Korea as a nuclear power for at least years to come.

“It does take a long time to pull off complete denuclearization. It takes a long time,” Trump told reporters.

Allies' alarm

Third – and perhaps most momentous for the Korean Peninsula and Asia more broadly – aspects of the Singapore summit suggest an acceleration of the sunset of American power and postwar alliance maintenance in Asia.

In his remarks following the formal summit, Trump apparently caught allies South Korea and Japan off guard by declaring that the US will end “war games” with South Korea, a reference to their regular joint military exercises.

Trump called the exercises “very provocative” and “inappropriate” in light of the new entente between Washington and Pyongyang, while at the same time raising the prospect of drawing down US forces stationed in South Korea and the region.

But many longtime Asia analysts see the development very differently.

“The president has put in the water the scent of American withdrawal,” says Mike Green, who served as senior director for Asia on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council and is now senior vice-president for Asia at CSIS.

Highlighting Trump’s dual message of troop withdrawals and cancelled joint military exercises as a stark departure from the traditional US role in Asia since World War II, Dr. Green described the summit as “seeing our alliances unravel” before our eyes. “It’s pretty stunning.”

Talk of ending joint military exercises was also jarring to many in South Korea, which received no advance warning of the American president’s plans.

“It sends very bad reverberations to American allies,” says Bong Young-shik, a research fellow at the Institute for North Korean Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.

Kim Jong-un “succeeded in framing [the joint military exercises] in transactional terms, which Donald Trump cares most about,” Mr. Bong says. “The US saves money and at the same time it gives security insurance to North Korea,” he adds, but “security partnerships can’t be reduced to transactions or calculations of money.”

The Trump-Kim summit may raise new doubts for US allies – indeed Green says the shockwaves will reverberate beyond Northeast Asia to Australia and on to European allies – but China will hear the summit’s tune as sweet strains, analysts say.

Beijing has long angled for an end to US military exercises in its backyard and for a drawdown of US troops on the Korean Peninsula. In addition, China is going to see the summit as a green light to increasingly disregard the sanctions on trade with North Korea that the US pushed through the UN Security Council. On Tuesday, Beijing suggested that sanctions be adjusted or lightened if Pyongyang complies with UN resolutions.

“What we’re going to see is a loosening of the imposition of sanctions … particularly from China and Russia” says Terry, adding that once sanctions are disregarded it’s difficult to re-impose them – another unbottled genie.

Put to the test

On the denuclearization front, experts who were largely unimpressed with the summit say they do see a ray of hope in Trump’s announcement that a “process” of high-level negotiations, led on the US side by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will get under way shortly.

“The handshake between Trump and Kim was historic, but the summit outcome is mediocre at best,” says Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington. “The true test of success is whether the follow-on negotiations can close the gap between the United States and North Korea on the definition of denuclearization and lay out specific, verifiable steps that Pyongyang will take to reduce the threat posed by its nuclear weapons.”

For some analysts, that test will come quite soon – as the Pentagon decides whether North Korea is taking the steps that warrant cancelling or significantly reducing the late summer US-South Korea joint military exercises, and as the world moves into diplomatic high gear with the UN General Assembly meeting in September.

So far the Singapore summit has merely “served as a Band-aid” on the North Korean nuclear crisis, says Victor Cha, a seasoned US Asia diplomat now at CSIS. “By the time we get to August-September, we will see if there’s any there there.”