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Summing Up the Singapore Summit

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • Last updated: June 12
  • Total word count: 827 words

The Singapore summit has come and gone, and though the fact that it was convened at all is important in its own right, the bigger question is whether anything can come from it. North Korea has devoted substantial resources to its nuclear weapons program, apparently stopping just short of successfully testing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could strike the U.S. mainland. In other words, Washington’s red line has yet to be crossed. Considering the U.S. response – war – would have been costly and inconclusive, this was an enormous relief to the United States.

And so a sort of stalemate has emerged. North Korea has a regional nuclear capability that the United States will not destroy militarily. The U.S. retains its own massive military capability, along with forces in South Korea, Japan and the waters near North Korea. If North Korea acts aggressively, it forces a U.S. response. If the U.S. acts aggressively, it forces a North Korean response. Neither response is to be taken lightly.

The talks may have created a way out of the stalemate, but there is no indication of what that might be. According to the communique that was issued, the goal is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This is a reasonable goal, albeit hard to understand. North Korea’s nuclear weapons are located on the Korean Peninsula. The United States’ nuclear weapons are located in the U.S., in aircraft that fly the skies and in submarines that sail the seas. Negotiating the removal of a nuclear weapon from a U.S. base in, say, South Korea or Japan doesn’t really enhance North Korean security.

Both sides understand as much. After all, their calculus hasn’t changed. North Korea did not develop a nuclear weapons program only to bargain it away for a promise the U.S. may or may not keep – i.e., not attacking North Korea with a nuclear weapon. The United States is unlikely to use nuclear weapons. If war comes, it will be waged with sophisticated but conventional weapons. But more important, North Korea has no way to enforce such a promise. The U.S., on the other hand, can enforce North Korean promises by inspections. The U.S. is not going to give up its nuclear force.

Therefore, North Korea wants something else, something more practical: some kind of drawdown of U.S. forces in South Korea and possibly Japan. That is the most practical security guarantee for North Korea, but one the United States will almost certainly refuse. For all South Korea’s work in the past few weeks, the U.S. presence is still what guarantees Seoul’s national security. As for Japan, the world’s third-largest economy and the foundation of U.S. strategy in the Western Pacific, a U.S. drawdown would force Japan to rearm, something about which Washington has mixed feelings.

Perhaps North Korea would simply accept the lifting of sanctions. But it knew its nuclear development would eventuate in sanctions, and it went ahead with it anyway. To incur those costs for nothing may well destabilize the Kim regime. Already there are indications in this regard, though with North Korea being North Korea, details are scarce. Still, you don’t need special insight into Pyongyang to know how unwise it is to abandon a decadeslong and incredibly expensive program – one on which the future of a country depends – for nothing in return.

The most likely outcome from the meeting, then, is the maintenance of the balance between North Korea and the United States that existed before the meeting. In all likelihood, the talks will continue through various channels, but as with many diplomatic efforts, an endless amount can unfold while the balance holds.

This would be acceptable for the North. It would allow the government there to save face by remaining a nuclear power, scoring valuable political points at home by showing the people it is strong enough to bring the United States to the negotiating table. The sanctions hurt, and North Korea has economic problems that can go on forever, but this at least buys Kim Jong Un some time. In the U.S., President Donald Trump wants a diplomatic success to demonstrate that his approach to foreign policy works, especially after a contentious G-7 summit. The U.S may prefer a settlement, but it can at least tolerate North Korea’s nuclear capability for now.

Both sides have domestic political reasons to settle, but it is not clear that either side can give the other what it needs to make the settlement. The U.S. can’t draw its forces down in the region. North Korea can’t simply abandon its weapons. This is not to trivialize such an unprecedented affair. Each side got something it wanted, and getting what they want will stabilize the situation, if only temporarily. But the stability is based on strategic reality more than on this meeting.