Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Trump–Kim summit puts trust before the process

Reading Time: 5 mins
US President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un meet at the start of their summit at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore on 12 June 2018. (Photos: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst).

In Brief

The United States and North Korea are still in a technical state of war that has continued for 65 years. This alone makes the first ever US–DPRK leaders' summit held in Singapore on 12 June a remarkable event. But despite its historic nature, an atmosphere of pessimism has pervaded post-summit analysis due to the lack of details in the joint statement signed by US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and entrenched antagonisms and suspicions.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

The summit hype created unrealistic expectations. Trump, the braggadocio, lauded his own deal-making skills, and his supporters suggested he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for what he was about to achieve. The decades-long quest to denuclearise North Korea was never going to be easy but letting the difficulties daunt the start to untying the Korean Gordian knot is no option.

The joint statement reversed the normal order of things, putting trust before the process. Trump and Kim committed to ‘join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula’. As Sourabh Gupta explains in the first of our two lead essays this week, the ‘broad principles enunciated in the Trump–Kim joint statement constitute an initial step towards reconciliation in the decades-long history of antagonism’ between the two countries as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice Chairman of the Workers’ Party of (North) Korea Kim Yong-chol continue negotiations.

In the joint statement Kim Jong-un ‘reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment’ to ‘work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula’. This language drew skepticism. Pompeo previously emphasised that a ‘complete, verifiable and irreversible’ (CVID) approach to North Korean denuclearisation is non-negotiable, a phrase the joint statement avoided. Since North Korea insists on denuclearising the Korean peninsula as a whole, there is still the potential for North Korea to demand a ban on nuclear-capable US strategic military assets in South Korea as well as the removal of the US nuclear umbrella from South Korea.

But as John Hemmings and James Amadeo explain in our second lead article, ‘Even though the joint statement itself is ambiguous, there may be more going on behind the ink’. The joint statement is a necessary prelude; the challenge now is to maintain negotiating momentum. As Pompeo headed to Seoul to brief South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the outcome of the summit, he explained that North Korea understands there will be ‘in-depth verification’ of the denuclearisation process and that the Trump administration hopes to achieve denuclearisation by the end of 2020 when Trump’s first term in office ends. This timeframe may well be too rushed. As a first step, talks need to address the perception gap on what the term ‘denuclearisation’ means and North Korea will need to prepare a comprehensive declaration of all its nuclear assets before discussion can begin on International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.

In exchange for North Korea’s denuclearisation promise, ‘President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK’. Trump also announced that the United States will suspend US–South Korea joint ‘war games’ as long as North Korea continues ‘negotiating in good faith‘ while US Vice President Mike Pence clarified that regular readiness training will continue. While the Trump administration should have consulted with South Korea before it made this declaration, these commitments are critical to the peace process. The Korean peninsula has often been referred to as a ‘shrimp among whales’ — a geopolitical crossroads where larger regional rivalries are fought out — and a sense of being pressed by threats from all sides continues to permeate the North Korean national psychology today.

Negotiations towards a peace treaty and the provision of robust security guarantees should now be conducted in cooperation with the region. Buy-in from China and South Korea — the other two signatories of the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the active hostilities of the Korean War — will increase the chances of establishing a sustainable and long-lasting peace.

Security guarantees for a denuclearised North Korea need to include both military and economic dimensions. The economic dimension makes Japanese participation critical. In the 2002 Japan–DPRK Pyongyang Declaration, agreed to by then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korea’s previous leader Kim Jong-il, Japan promised North Korea significant economic cooperation upon the normalisation of diplomatic relations. But the abduction issue prevented the realisation of the Pyongyang Declaration. Regional players should encourage Japan and North Korea to open negotiations aimed at normalising Japan–DPRK relations, including addressing the abduction issue in a realistic way, in conjunction with the larger regional process.

Critics have charged that the summit legitimises a brutal dictator; Trump countered that he intentionally ‘gave [Kim Jong-un] credibility‘. The totalitarian nature of North Korea’s political system and its human rights abuses have been cited in the past as reasons not to engage with North Korea. But North Korea will not simply vanish from the map. And there is no viable military option for ending the war and bringing about regime change. Military action would put millions of lives at risk. And talk of military action provides further justification for North Korea’s retention of nuclear capabilities.

As the late Stephen Bosworth (former US special representative for North Korea policy) once put it, ‘Much of diplomacy is rewarding bad behaviour. You’re trying to figure out how you can stop the worst of the behaviour at the lowest possible price‘. In order to address North Korea’s nuclear program and the serious issues relating to its human rights and political system over the longer term, the international community has no choice but to engage North Korea and jointly explore options for North Korea’s transformation into a more ‘normal’ state that no longer requires nuclear weapons to ensure its survival. The Trump–Kim summit is a positive step on this much longer journey.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

One response to “Trump–Kim summit puts trust before the process”

  1. This article is a refreshing change from the media biases on both sides. I believe the article correctly points out the unrealistic expectations that many had prior to the summit, and the disappointment that people felt when their expectations were not realised. Considering that this was the first meeting between the incumbent President of the US and the Leader of North Korea, it was bound to draw attraction and divide people. The article well articulated and presented a non-biased analysis of the Trump-Kim summit. Considering that this was written by academics who are well versed in the topic, the article is actually able to offer explanations to the criticisms and the observations of this historic summit.

    The comment ‘shrimp among whales’ is a rather famous Korean proverb, which I’m rather surprised to find in this article. As pointed out in the article, the past attempts to denuclearise the North did not yield in permanent results, and I agree that this piece reminds us again that denuclearisation is no easy feat which will be realised within a short period of time. Perhaps the trust-before-process approach will yield different outcomes, but we should not have unrealistic expectations from North Korea.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.