South Korean activist on US-North Korea summit: ‘A first step to ending final Cold War conflict’

A peace rally in Seoul on November 5.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and United States President Donald Trump met at a historic summit in Singapore on June 12 that concluded with a joint statement. The summit essentially reaffirmed the spirit of transitioning to peaceful coexistence contained in the Panmunjom Declaration signed at the North-South Korean summit on April 27.

The joint statement has created some confusion among supporters and critics of the summit. Despite high expectations, the final agreement was rather simple, and did not contain any decisive or concrete details.

Trump’s adversaries within the US have attacked him for failing to secure a commitment from the North Korean delegation to complete, veritable, irreversible denuclearisation (CVID).

Trump's talk of halting military exercises with South Korea — “expensive war games” as he put it — has also been cited as a huge concession. These military exercises have been used as a pretext by the North Korean government to reject any cooperation with South Korea and the United States.

However, those who want peace and denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula have welcomed the success of the summit. Though the end of the war has not been declared, a decisive step towards complete denuclearisation and an end to mutual hostilities has been taken.

Who won?

Trump's critics claim the winner of the summit was Kim.

The most common criticism levelled at Trump is that he failed to secure CVID. This has been used by most leading Democrats and some Republican leaders to declare the summit a failure and cast doubts on Trump’s ability to carry out intelligent negotiations with one of the US’ toughest adversaries.

In South Korea, a few extreme right pundits have attacked Trump as “a poor trader” who was fooled by Kim's tricks.

But the question of who was the winner at the summit is rather meaningless and misses the context. Despite the constant threats to cancel the summit, both sides reached an agreement that reaffirmed the goal of denuclearisation and peace, thereby opening the way for complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

Trump’s weakness, Kim’s strength

Trump regards himself as a master in the art of negotiating, but in these talks he made several mistakes.

The US has vilified North Korea for disrespecting human rights, supporting terrorism, etc, and denied North Korea any rights as a nation, thereby demonstrating its lack of proper information on how the regime functions and what it represents.

Though all the details of the long negotiation are not fully known, North Korea’s proposals appear to have been more rational than the reckless approach of the US government.

The process of denuclearisation cannot be completed within a couple of months. Rather, an approach that seeks to move forward on the basis of mutually agreed upon steps is more reasonable.

Trump's earlier abrupt cancellation of the talks, followed by its resumption several days later without any clear reason for the initial cancellation, was a fatal mistake for an expert negotiator. His tactic of maximum pressure eventually proved to be a failure.

On the other hand, Kim stopped military provocations and shifted North Korea’s policy from confrontation to peaceful negotiation.

Diplomatically, Kim's reconciliation with China was also a strategic move. China has no reason to maintain distance from North Korea as long as Kim clearly expresses his will for denuclearisation.

North Korea was therefore in a better position to persuade its counterparts in the negotiation. In this sense, the Singapore summit was a successful debut for Kim.

As long as Kim maintains this position, he will hold a strong position in negotiations with the US and others.

End of the Cold War?

The summit was just a first step towards peace on the Korean Peninsula. South Koreans welcomed the final result, with many relieved that they may soon be able to secure a permanent peace.

In a sign of support for the pro-peace stance of South Korea’s government, President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party won in 14 of the 17 mayoral and gubernatorial races and 11 of 12 parliament byelections held the day after the Singapore summit.

Opposition parties that have consistently criticised Moon’s approach to North Korea were thoroughly defeated, many entering crisis mode.

For North Korea, the summit was supposed to save it from the unnecessary burden of confrontation and a potential war. In this sense, the summit was a significant diplomatic success, which will enable it to devote its capacities towards economic development.

However, the success of the Singapore summit was just a first step towards further tough negotiation between two sides that skilfully exchanged recognition of the North Korean regime for commitment to complete denuclearisation.

The Korean Peninsula took a historic step towards halting decades of antagonistic confrontation and ending the last remaining battleground of the Cold War.

[Youngsu Won is coordinator of the International Forum in South Korea.]

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