The historic meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim
Jong-un in Singapore resulted in the signing of a joint statement that carries significant implications for relations between the two countries, and for U.S. military relations in the region. The statement is big on ambition but short on details. Most significantly, Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the statement reads. The two leaders also committed to establishing new diplomatic relations, while Trump committed to providing security guarantees to North Korea.
The joint statement did not provide any specifics about the denuclearization process, but President Trump said that the process would be verified by people on the ground. He also revealed that North Korea is destroying a major missile engine test site. Ballistic missile testing in North Korea has been a major concern for the White House, especially as the range of the missiles being tested has increased. When questioned by the press, Trump was unwilling to discuss military consequences if North Korea fails to follow through on commitments.
North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have largely been viewed as either a deterrent in order to protect the regime, or as a bargaining chip for improving relations with the international community. There were no solid details about what “security guarantees” the U.S. would provide, but Mr. Trump did announce that the U.S. would halt military exercises with South Korea. The annual military wargames between the U.S. and South Korea have been a long-standing point of contention for North Korea, and rhetoric out of Pyongyang is typically strongest while the drills are taking place. In the past the U.S. has refused to put the exercises on the negotiating table. The move therefore signifies a change in U.S. negotiating strategy, but it is unclear if Trump meant the exercises are being suspended temporarily while negotiations take place, or if they are being halted indefinitely. Trump called the exercises provocative, a stance that previous administrations have been unwilling to take.
In a press conference following the meeting, Trump curiously cited the high cost of the exercises, saying that the U.S. would save a “tremendous amount of money” by ending them. In particular, he said he was unhappy that U.S. bombers have to fly all the way from Guam to take part. Trump also said he wishes to bring U.S. troops stationed in South Korea back home, but provided no timeline for any withdrawal. The U.S. troop presence in South Korea was not part of the joint statement signed by the two leaders, and for now there are no actionable plans to remove any of the 28,000 troops stationed there. Trump has often criticized the cost of basing so many troops in South Korea.
It also remains to be seen what impact, if any, the summit and follow-on negotiations will have on U.S. missile defense efforts. North Korea’s recent ballistic missile tests have been used as a rallying point by the White House and members of Congress to increase funding for missile defense projects. In November 2017, the White House released a supplemental budget request that contained $4 billion for missile defense programs in light of the increased tension with Pyongyang. The supplemental included funding for additional Patriot missiles, SM-3 Block IIA interceptors, and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors, as well as advance procurement of an additional 20 ground-based interceptors.
The meeting between Trump and Kim is certainly an important milestone, but merely represents the first step in what is sure to be a long and difficult process. Follow-on negotiations will be led by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a North Korean counterpart “at the earliest possible date.” Trump also left open the possibility of a future trip to Pyongyang, or an invitation for Kim to visit the White House. Moving forward, the two sides must sort out the details of the denuclearization process, as well as the specifics of how U.S. military operations in South Korea will change. There is a lingering concern that North Korea will not adhere to the stipulations of an agreement, as has been the case in the past. Mr. Trump could also just as easily walk away if he is unsatisfied with progress at any point, as he did with the Iran nuclear deal. One of North Korea’s goals has been recognition by the White House, so the fact that dialogue is taking place at the highest level could result in more substantive change than in the past.