There has been a torrent of whining about the Trump–Kim summit. Critics are calling it little more than a photo opportunity for a dictator, and claim that nothing was agreed while North Korea’s horrific human rights abuses were overlooked. Sceptics claim that the agreement is the same as previous agreements between the United States and North Korea, that Kim will never change and North Korea will never denuclearise, and that stopping US–ROK war games will reduce US military readiness in the event of conflict.
But the Trump–Kim summit was transformative, no matter what happens in the future. It was transformative because Kim Jong-un’s diplomacy has changed how the outside world views North Korea, its people and its leader. Even more importantly, the summit was transformative for North Korea itself — for how its own people view themselves and their leader.
After the events of the past six months, it is no longer possible to sustain the caricatures (and they were caricatures) of North Korea as a reclusive and erratic regime. The regime shared with its citizens unprecedented levels of information and images about Kim’s overseas meetings. North Korean state media offered detailed reporting on the summits, including explicit mentions of denuclearisation and photographs of Singapore. The regime also released a 42-minute documentary that shared essentially as much information to the North Korean people about the Trump–Kim summit as the rest of the world received.
The aftermath of the Trump–Kim summit is not the end, it is the beginning. Denuclearisation is not the goal. Peace is the goal. And the best way to get there is diplomacy. Pressure is not going to work. The more that North Koreans interact with the outside world, and the more that their economy integrates with the outside world, the more chance there is that their own living situation will improve. If the rest of the world cares about North Korean human rights, it needs to fully support engagement with North Korea.
The only way to find out whether North Korea will denuclearise is to keep trying. North Korea certainly can denuclearise and survive as a country, contrary to conventional wisdom that views nuclear weapons as the thin reed upon which the Kim family depends for its survival.
It’s not even totally clear whether North Korea has a deliverable nuclear weapons capability yet. It is close, to be sure — but the idea that Kim’s regime only survives because of its nuclear deterrent overlooks the fact that North Korea achieved the possibility of a nuclear deterrent just last year. North Korea has survived for 65 years without a nuclear deterrent. It can defend itself and deter an attack with its conventional military and short-range missiles that could devastate Seoul and even Tokyo.
In short, North Korea will not be helpless if it denuclearises. It will be where it was a only a few years earlier, with a massive conventional military. If Kim can resolve the relationship with the United States, he may not even need that.
Kim’s regime can also survive detente with the United States. North Korea is not about to implode. The idea that if Kim denuclearises he will end up ‘dead in a ditch’ overlooks the fact that he is still a brutal dictator, and that there are no signs of any type of civil war or unrest within North Korea. Other countries may not like it, but Kim is in no danger of being overthrown from within.
The time for talk of ‘maximum pressure’ and a ‘bloody nose’ strike is finished. Kim has made concessions: a voluntary moratorium on missile testing, a voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing and dismantlement of the nuclear testing site. Sceptics argue that these are partial measures. But of course they are, that’s the point — they are concessions, not irretrievable moves.
And yes, Kim could re-start North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing programs. But as long as he does not, there will be almost no support from US allies and partners for military action or even for continuing economic pressure against North Korea, no matter what rhetoric comes from Washington.
North Korea is not a problem to be solved. It is a country the world must learn to live with. Containment has never been successful. North Korea meets pressure with pressure of its own. Whether pressure on North Korean nuclear weapons, human rights or economic reform — all have failed. To his credit, Trump’s efforts at engagement and diplomacy have seen results. This is a dramatic and historic first step in the right direction.
David C Kang is Maria Crutcher Professor of International Relations and Director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California. His latest book is American Grand Strategy and East Asian Security in the 21st Century, published in 2017.
This article was published in the East Asia Forum on 3 July 2018