Lessons From Singapore and the Need for a ‘Road Map’

The summit conference of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump achieved what few expected: Leaders of two former adversaries have built trust that can serve as the basis for a lasting peace and normalization of relations. At least ten lessons have been learned:

Most important of all, Kim and Trump have achieved a diplomatic success by ending fears of imminent nuclear war.

The Singapore Declaration calls for denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula. In 1958, the United States was the first to introduce nuclear weapons in Korea, a clear violation of the 1953 armistice agreement. What is significant is the neither side fingerpointed about past violations of existing agreements. After all, Kim Jong UN has never violated any agreement he has signed and should not be judged for what his father and grandfather may have done.

From 1953, North Korea assisted in locating bodies of Americans soldiers who died during the Korean War, but Washington stopped the mission in 2005, frustrating Pyongyang’s good intentions. Families of those soldiers asked Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to resume the quest, but in vain. Now President Donald Trump has listened to both American families and to North Korean authorities, who are immediately prepared to work together with American counterparts. To facilitate, the United States might even set up a temporary office in Pyongyang, as was the case in dealing with a similar problem after the Vietnam War.

The meeting took place because both leaders sought and began to establish a warm personal relationship. Before the meeting, they talked on the telephone and on twitter and gained mutual respect. Trump could easily explain that his “Rocket Man” comment was a form of praise. Kim would have apologized for his underlings who used unflattering comments about Trump as well as the mistreatment of Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after his release from captivity. Despite those who see leaders as purely ego-driven, there is almost nothing more important than establishing bonds of friendship in foreign relations.

Speculation that sanctions imposed on North Korea brought Kim to the bargaining table has been answered, as the two leaders instead highlighted “mutual confidence building” as the basis for the Singapore Declaration. Beforehand, the two leaders reciprocated unilaterally in several measures: Kim froze weapons tests, destroyed a test site, released three Americans, and reaffirmed commitment to total denuclearization. Trump considered a reduction in military forces in South Korea, promised no regime change, and toned down winter wargames.

After Singapore, Trump surprised many by promising to cancel future military exercises between South Korea and the United States, which have simulated an attack on North Korea and the assassination of Kim Jong UN, while the Pentagon has mischaracterized them as “defensive.” Trump’s promise is the most significant of all the confidence-building gestures, indicative that he has listened to North Korea’s number one complaint, going back to 1955, when the wargames began. In exchange, Kim has promised to demolish a missile test site. Reciprocated unilateral confidence-building measures are continuing.

Trump has repeatedly praised his relations with Asian leaders on a level above those with Western leaders. He has now expanded his warm friendship with the leaders of China, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea to include North Korea’s Kim Jong UN

What has occurred is a rejection of Western contract-oriented diplomacy in favor of Asian community-building diplomacy. When initially Kim said that he wanted to begin discussion of denuclearization at the summit, Beltway commentators jumped on the suggestion by assuming that a grand bargain would be achieved, with Kim inevitably yielding to Trump because of his greater “leverage.” They falsely assumed that coercive measures can work with a nuclear power – or that there was no point to a meeting until an agreement was struck resulting in immediate denuclearization action.

Observers obsessed with power politics conceptions even now cynically refer to the Singapore Declaration as a bunch of vague promises, a mere scissors-and-paste reaffirmation of previous unsuccessful promises, accomplishing nothing. On the contrary, what is crucial in diplomacy is agenda setting. Now that comprehensive goals for future diplomacy have been recognized, there will be a higher standard than ever before in relations between North Korea and the United States. The leaders will now look over the shoulders of negotiators, who unfortunately have stumbled in the past.

The Singapore Declaration contains goals that cannot quickly be accomplished or all at once. Clearly needed is a step-by-step “road map,” similar to the one used in achieving normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam. And there is a need for experienced, professional negotiators on both sides.

Such a “road map” will be far more complicated than the one that worked with Vietnam. That is the challenge now before diplomats in both countries. The time for creative diplomacy has arrived. Whether completion will be achieved by a deadline of 2020, as now set by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, remains to be seen. Skepticism needs to be outbalanced by an eagerness for peace.

Nobel Peace Prize nominee Michael Haas is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, University of Hawaii? and the author 57 books, including soon-to-be released United States Diplomacy with North Korea and Vietnam (Peter Lang, publisher).