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Opinion

All sizzle and no steak?

Amid the hype, Trump-Kim summit offers, at best, only modest hints of progress

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a news conference after his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella Hotel in Singapore on June 12.   © AP

Is the Singapore summit different from the previous diplomatic efforts at resolving the Korean nuclear problem which all failed? Is North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested, really making a strategic choice, moving the world closer to peace on the Korean Peninsula? Or was his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump -- not to mention Trump's post-summit press conference -- just great reality TV?

Amid all the hype, the encounter offered at best, modest hints of political progress.

Though filled with far more symbolism than substance, the fact that Trump met the one man in North Korea able to decide its nuclear future is to his credit. Nixon to China it was not, but personal rapport among leaders can be helpful.

However, the short, vague joint statement they released offered few details of the bright new chapter in history Trump is advertising. Instead, it repeated generalities: the U.S. would provide "security guarantees," while Kim reaffirmed his "unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." Yet the U.S. has provided security guarantees on three separate occasions during previous nuclear negotiations and there is no indication how these would be different. Similarly, there is no definition of what denuclearization actually means, on what timeline, or with what verification.

But what has sparked real trepidation amongst U.S. Asian allies and many analysts was Trump committing to halt military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, while pledging to build a "peace regime."

This would fulfill long-standing North Korean and Chinese goals aimed at removing the U.S. from the Korean Peninsula. Indeed, as his lengthy press conference Trump even said he would like to bring U.S. troops home, though not yet.

In a sense, this appeared a continuation of the disdain for allies, including Japan, Trump demonstrated at the recent Group of Seven summit. Without joint military exercises, the two militaries cannot fight together, and there is no operational alliance, degrading deterrence. Moreover, neither Seoul nor Tokyo were given advance warning that Trump would halt exercises. This is, in effect, the "freeze-for-freeze" idea that Beijing proposed last year (freeze the North Korean nuclear program for a freeze on U.S. exercises). It is a measure of how much Trump's policy has evolved.

Apart from follow-on meetings that the joint statement announced Pompeo will hold with his North Korean counterparts, there is no clear idea of how the complex, technical process of implementing the dismantling of North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles might work. The first step would be North Korea submitting a declaration to the International Atomic Energy Agency of what constitutes its program. The IAEA would then fashion an inspection and monitoring regime. But no such effort has been publicly discussed. The previous 2005 nuclear accord collapsed after Pyongyang refused to allow the IAEA full transparency to verify its program.

Another problem that U.S. policy is likely to face is how to coordinate with other major frontline states in Northeast Asia -- China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. Previously, there were the Six Party talks, reflecting an overlap of interests on the part of the major powers that made them cooperative stakeholders in regard to the North Korean nuclear problem. By framing the diplomacy as a U.S.-North Korea bilateral issue, Trump has created something of a diplomatic free-for-all, with each trying to define its own role. North-South reconciliation talks are proceeding separately. Chinese President Xi Jinping has had two meetings with Kim, presumably coordinating their respective policies. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently went to Pyongyang meet Kim, though what was agreed to is unclear.

Why does this matter? For a host of reasons. First, the U.S. is says sanctions should remain in place until concrete steps toward denuclearization take place. Ninety percent of North Korean trade is with China. Beijing already appears to be easing sanctions, resuming regular flights to Pyongyang amid reports of increased economic activity along the China-North Korean border. So, in the event that North Korea fails to move forward to denuclearize, it is highly unlikely that if Trump decides to impose "maximum pressure" and tighten sanctions, it will be possible to do so. Thus, the U.S. may already have lost much of its leverage on Pyongyang.

Secondly, absent a mechanism to coordinate policies, it will be difficult to make sure benefits accruing to North Korea -- for example South Korean and/or Chinese aid and investment -- are sequenced with progress in dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs. Otherwise, U.S. leverage dissipates.

In the face of all these prospective impediments, U.S. success in achieving a new, economic reforming, non-nuclear North Korea may boil down to Trump's faith in Kim's desire for economic modernization. Absent that, there is little the U.S. can offer him that is worth abandoning his nuclear security blanket for.

It is worth recalling the developments that led to the Trump-Kim summit. The pressure on his economy from unprecedented comprehensive economic sanctions, with China cutting trade to a degree Kim never expected. Then there were Trump's military threats to "totally destroy" North Korea. This, along a certain sense of confidence that his accelerated pace of nuclear and missile tests led him to announce he had completed the program, perhaps providing a sense of deterrence. Finally, the Seoul Olympics hosted by a leftish government in Seoul that viewed North Korea more as partner than threat provided an opportunity for an opening that Kim parlayed into summits with both the South Korea and U.S.

The logic is that being only 34, Kim wants to be around for several more decades. He has pledged economic development for his people, and the "maximum pressure" was beginning to squeeze his economy. In current circumstances, he saw he could not significantly ramp up his economy. Moreover, having been educated in Europe, he had a sense of how backward North Korea is, and also of how remarkable China's economic success has been -- without threatening the position of the Communist Party. Perhaps he is willing to take some risks.

Is Kim having a "Deng Xiaoping moment"? Does he, like the former Chinese leader, want to take his country on a wholly new economic path? That would make this time different. He toured Chinese tech facilities on his first visit, and, according to well-placed Korean sources, reportedly told Xi Jinping that his father should have pursued a course similar to China. Kim has sent two delegations of several hundred party and government officials to China in the past three months to study Beijing's economic policies in action.

Though Pyongyang tolerates private markets, Kim has yet to utter the word "reform." Kim has a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: few will invest in North Korea until he reduces political risk and creates an acceptable investment environment -- enforced contracts, commercial law, dispute settlement mechanisms. But that requires a leap of faith that shedding nuclear weapons and building a new relationship with the U.S., perhaps even Trump Towers and McDonald's, will put him on such a trajectory. Yet, as he knows, all that could result in not a Deng Xiaoping moment, but a Mikhail Gorbachev one, with his regime collapsing like the Soviet Union.

In any case, in the aftermath of the Trump-Kim summit there are far more questions than answers about North Korea's fate. So much for "The Art of the Deal."

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012.

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