Moment that mattered: The US-North Korea summit takes place in Singapore
In the summer of 2018, we chatted to defence policy analyst Kori Schake about a summit of two powerful world leaders
12th June 2018 (Taken from: #31)
Three months after the first ever meeting between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader I ask Kori Schake who was the victor. She replies without hesitation: “Kim Jong-un”. According to the deputy-director general of global security research organisation the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the North Korean dictator had gained a huge victory the moment the Singapore summit was announced in May. “President Trump fundamentally misunderstood that any US president could have got a summit with Kim,” says Schake. “Previous presidents understood that by meeting bilaterally you’d be handing the head of North Korea an enormous propaganda victory, and you’d also reinforce [the idea] that proliferating nuclear weapons is a way to get the United States’ attention.”
A national security official under George W Bush and a foreign policy adviser to John McCain’s 2008 campaign, Schake was one of several Republican foreign policy experts to back Hillary Clinton over her own party’s nominee in 2016. In the days before Singapore she likened the president to a gambler on a losing streak who was making riskier bets overseas in an attempt to recover the ground she thinks he has lost in domestic political defeats. “He pulled a rabbit out of a hat [by announcing the summit] because he wanted a big success,” says Schake. “He’s a showman. He likes the big event more than the patient work of accruing small gains that add up over time.”
Rather than the Singapore summit marking a step towards peace, Schake believes it potentially made the situation on the Korean peninsula worse. “The president left claiming that the North Koreans had agreed to denuclearise while the North Koreans said the US agreed that the first step was a peace treaty ending hostilities in the Korean peninsula,” says Schake. “President Trump’s policy increases the risk of conflict because he has created such wide latitude for misunderstanding on a problem that has a very slim margin of error.”
Schake also believes the meeting demonstrated a disregard for the security concerns of America’s regional allies. “It’s not clear to me that President Trump’s threats to make a preventative attack on North Korea [in 2017] scared the North Koreans. But it’s clear that they scared South Korea and that has been driving a lot of the diplomacy we’ve seen Seoul undertaking [President Moon Jae-in has prioritised the advancement of inter-Korean relations and met Kim Jong-un in April, May and September]. The president’s behaviour has persuaded an American ally that the US is a greater threat to its security than its adversaries are – and that’s a terrible place for US foreign policy to be.” Moreover, Trump surprised Seoul at the summit by announcing the suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea. “Halting exercises is problematic because it will make any resumption of them seem like a change to the status quo, which gives North Korea something to react against,” warns Schake.
There’s no evidence that the president has got anything… There is no roadmap to denuclearisation
Now that the dust has settled on the summit, Schake struggles to see any concrete gains from it for the US. “There’s no evidence that the president has got anything,” Schake says. “North Korea remains in possession of its nuclear weapons, it remains able to restart its nuclear programme at any time, there are no inspectors in the country and there is no agreed path to progress. There is currently no roadmap towards denuclearisation.”
Since Trump’s upbeat press conference after his meeting with Kim, progress has largely stalled. Hopes of North Korean denuclearisation took a hit when a report by the UN atomic watchdog in August claimed that Pyongyang was still developing nuclear weapons, which prompted US secretary of state Mike Pompeo to postpone a trip to the country. Yet in early September there were positive signs: North Korea held an unusually subdued military parade, widely viewed as a concession to the US and South Korea, and on 10th September the White House said that Kim had requested a second meeting and that Trump was interested.
Schake believes that US policy on North Korea requires recalibration. She believes that the US should recommit to a policy of deterrence that makes it clear that if Pyongyang acts aggressively towards the US or its regional allies, it will face military retaliation. She also thinks that Seoul should take the lead on policy regarding US engagement with the Kim regime. “We should take a back seat and trust their judgement,” says Schake.
She believes Moon Jae-in’s leadership in South Korea is a rare cause for optimism. “South Korea faces a difficult set of circumstances: it fears the erratic behaviour of its security guarantor at the same time that it fears the North Koreans,” Schake says. “It is taking a very measured, stabilising and admirable leadership role – and this gives me hope.”
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