Shambles in Singapore

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump meet in Singapore. Image Credit: Donald J. Trump via Twitter

US President Donald Trump’s media extravaganza in Singapore has achieved little beyond handing North Korea’s regime some easy victories.

Some of the gains for Kim Jong-un are obvious: the summit gave him the legitimacy he craves. We can expect photographs and footage from the summit will be used aggressively in North Korean propaganda for some time to come.

More substantially, Trump announced the US would end joint military exercises with South Korea, calling them ‘provocative’- an adjective borrowed from Pyongyang, as well as ‘expensive’.

The move is likely to face resistance from the Pentagon, and quietly alarm many in Japan and South Korea.

Pyongyang and Beijing win

Trump’s Singapore shambles had its origins in March, when he decided to hold a summit with Kim. This has an unintended effect. As American diplomat Daniel R. Russel points out, it ‘set off a race for influence with Pyongyang that has made Kim, so recently an outcast, the man to meet.’

The ensuing diplomatic scramble repaired strained ties between Pyongyang and Beijing. Late last month, North Korea suddenly reiterated its old demand for the military exercises to end. It was clear Kim’s recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping was responsible for this. China has long advocated a “freeze for freeze” deal in which the US ends its military exercises and North Korea pledges to stop expanding its nuclear arsenal. Trump has agreed to a freeze on his side with no change in North Korea’s military posture and only the vaguest commitment from Kim about denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. It’s important to note here that for Pyongyang, denuclearization also means the US withdrawing its nuclear umbrella from Japan and South Korea.

For all their differences, China and North Korea share a common goal of weakening America’s relationships with South Korea and Japan. Indeed, Beijing would like a complete American withdrawal from the Western Pacific region. Trump’s verbal concessions to Kim Jong-un have brought them closer to that goal.

Next steps

It’s clear Trump’s approach to the summit was ad hoc, even flippant. The announcement on ending military exercises clearly surprised many. A spokesperson for American forces in South Korea said they would maintain their present military posture until told otherwise.

A bemused spokesperson for South Korea’s Blue House- the official residence of President Moon Jae-in- simply said: ‘At this moment, the meaning and intention of President Trump’s remarks requires more clear understanding.’

Of course, officials from the US, Japan, and South Korea are publicly trying to downplay fears. And while China is already calling for lifting sanctions against the North, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo made it clear they would stay for now.

However, with matters in a flux, Tokyo is also seeking to open its own diplomatic gambit with Kim Jong-un, hoping to make progress on the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea.

The long-term consequences of the Trump-Kim summit are unknowable, but we can be sure North Korea has come out on top for now.

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