Top leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea Kim Jong-un (left) shakes hands with US President Donald Trump during the signing ceremony of a joint statement in Singapore on June 12, 2018. (Photo: Xinhua)
While the meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump was historic by all means, there is also mounting criticism and hand wringing from the US or, to a larger extent the Western mainstream experts, about the outcomes of the meeting. Most of the criticism focused on either that Mr. Trump has compromised too much or failed to extract specific denuclearization commitments from Pyongyang, except some "empty promises." Some even claim "it's depressing" and Trump proved to be a dove on North Korea. While commenting on Trump's suggestions of developing North Korea from a real estate perspective, Richard N. Hass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, lamented that "US foreign policy has clearly changed; the containment doctrine has given way to the condominium doctrine."
Are things truly that bad? Is such criticism fair? Could these observers be misreading Trump's ambition to do something "big and bold?"
For one thing, the tension surrounding the Korean Peninsula has been dramatically reduced with the successful conclusion of the summit in Singapore on Tuesday. Only as recently as last year, Pyongyang tested powerful nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, which it claimed were able to reach the US mainland. In response, Trump talked about "fire and fury like the world has never seen." The world was once at the brink of a nuclear Armageddon.
But in Singapore, the two leaders expressed a different sentiment. "We had a historic meeting and decided to leave the past behind," said Kim at the signing ceremony of a joint statement in Singapore, adding that "the world will see a major change." Previous hostilities are now largely gone, replaced by friendly greetings, patting on the back and promises of big changes. Isn't that a sign of tremendous progress and something to celebrate?
Secondly, the US-NK relationship is assuming a new style, from the two countries being arch enemies to now being on a path to normalization. Though technically still at war, the two countries are at a historical turn of their relationship. "I think our whole relationship with North Korea and the Korean Peninsula is going to be a very much different situation than it has in the past," said Trump. In his words, the two men have developed "a special bond," and a peace treaty may come soon to officially and technically end the war.
While it is wise not to read too much into Mr. Trump's remarks, such a statement does help to create the necessary foundation to continue the negotiations, which are widely believed to be tough and complex.
With regards to the key issue of denuclearization, Mr. Kim reaffirmed in the joint statement his "firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization." Many critics seem disappointed that it was merely a repeat of an earlier commitment by the North Korean leader. But it was the first time that Mr. Kim made such a promise to Mr. Trump, in a diplomatic document he signed in front of the world's media. Given how critical the disarmament of nuclear weapons is, the repetition assumes its own and more formal significance, albeit not legally binding.
It was also encouraging to see Mr. Trump was ready to provide necessary "security assurances" to North Korea and had already made some reconciliatory gestures, including ending the joint US-South Korea military drills, which he correctly pointed out was "very provocative." A possible future withdrawal of US troops from South Korea may also be on the table. If there's enough détente on the Peninsula to ensure long-term peace and stability, what's the point of stationing the about 30,000 troops, when the operational cost is presumably high and the justification nonexistent? Here one can see what China has long advocated and what Trump prefers as reciprocal moves of mutual compromises, North Korea's dismantling of its only known nuclear test site, as well as a promise to dismantle missile test grounds in return for the promised suspension of war games. More importantly, we see initial and sure signs of mutual trust, as compared with the previous trust deficits that hampered any peace attempts.
Critics say North Korea is the big winner, as the US could have extracted serious concessions but failed to do so. However, one cannot be oblivious to the fact that North Korea has demolished a nuclear test site, released US prisoners and stopped nuclear or missile tests for months. There aren't really many concrete concessions from the US side, except for promises that are welcomed but yet to be materialized.
If a zero-sum mentality is followed instead of a pragmatic manner to resolve problems, the issue can never be dealt with, as evidenced by what has happened in the past 70 years. "Anybody can make war but only the most courageous can make peace," said Trump, who is certainly unique in his own style and seems ready and determined to achieve "big and bold" changes by starting with "small steps." He has already created history by breaking away from convention to meet with Kim against all odds. More could be expected next week, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his team sit down with North Korean officials to interpret the four general points in the just signed documents into specific and reciprocal measures.
Complete denuclearization and ultimate peace may be a long way off, and few expect they can be achieved overnight. So far, Trump has made unprecedented moves and certainly deserves credit and support to continue the effort.
For those who continue to press for a jackpot at one go, the answer is – that way you are pressing for nothing but continued tension, or something even worse.
(The author is a political analyst for CRI and CGTN, and a Senior Fellow of the Pangoal Institution. He has worked as CRI's chief correspondent to Washington DC.)