US-North Korea Summit: A Bumpy Road to Peace
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Tai Wei Lim

US-North Korea Summit: A Bumpy Road to Peace

May. 31, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The world celebrated with great fanfare when a breakthrough was reached for US President Donald J Trump to meet his North Korean counterpart Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore. The process started with many parties’ involvement, including Kim Jo-yong — the sister of Kim Jong-un — attending the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and carrying personal messages from the North Korean leader. The attendance was considered very significant because Jo-yong is regarded by many as North Korea’s second most powerful political figure. In the meantime, South Korean officials also transmitted messages from North Korea and South Korea’s own readings of those messages to the Trump administration.


The location of the summit was the subject of great speculation. In the first phase, it included five destinations (including European locations like Switzerland) and this list was narrowed down to two Asian destinations, Mongolia and Singapore, after the first round of shortlisting. The European locations were ruled out because they were reportedly outside the 5,000 km range of the North Korean private jet Chammae-1. Later on, the last two candidates were joined at the last hour by a third location Panmunjom for consideration by the two major stakeholders.


Both North Korea and the US had their own preferences based on national interests. The US was keen to have a location with “prestige” and “glamor,” something publicly mentioned by President Trump. The US also preferred to have a venue that is not connected with either of the parties involved in the summit. Singapore has good public order, security experience, and the country hosts the North Korean, South Korean, and US embassies. Singapore has also accumulated a depth of experience in hosting international summit events and has formidable logistical and transportation capabilities. All these factors were crucial in enhancing the attractiveness of Singapore as a venue for the summit. Singapore eventually emerged as the clear winner for hosting the summit, and as a neutral and objective platform for facilitating and hosting the talk. North Korean Supreme Leader Kim reportedly even tested his private jet by flying it out of North Korea for the first time to Dalian, China in preparation for the Singapore summit.


Meanwhile, North and South Korea created a positive atmosphere for the talk to take place. Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met at the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, and Kim Jong-un even crossed the DMZ line into South Korea — this moment was captured by the international media to their great delight. Then, Kim invited President Moon to the North Korean side where their photos were taken a second time. With this simple act, the mood was created for rapprochement and ground-breaking talks between two rivals still theoretically in a state of war. During the DMZ meeting, President Moon conveyed US and Japanese concerns (including the issue of kidnapped Japanese citizens) to their North Korean counterparts. South Korea then briefed Washington DC, Beijing and Tokyo of the outcome and contents of the talks by dispatching the country’s intelligence chief to these capital cities.


Washington DC, Tokyo and Seoul were in close contact, working closely as alliance partners. Regionally, many leaders took the opportunity of the ASEAN Summit and the trilateral summit of China, Japan and South Korea to express their hopes that the summit talks between North Korea and the US could work out in the interest of peace on the Korean Peninsula. They were cautiously optimistic and were careful not to say anything that had the potential to scuttle the talks.

On May 28, US personnel led by a US ambassador headed to Singapore, supporting speculation that the talks may indeed take place.

However, a series of events occurred to scuttle the talks despite meticulous efforts from all sides. First, Pyongyang opposed the annual pre-planned US-Seoul military exercises and even showed their displeasure by cancelling their second summit with Seoul. US and Seoul had downgraded their military armaments for the exercise to show their (especially the US) sincerity in preparing for the summit. As the hours and days passed, Pyongyang’s statements grew stronger when they showed their subsequent displeasure at US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s suggestion that North Korea could follow the Libyan model when it comes to nuclear disarmament. This was a sensitive statement for the North Koreans due to former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s fate after he gave up his nuclear ambitions — he was killed by a mob.


North Korea’s strong response to Bolton’s statement showed that serious troubles were brewing. It was the first time when there were suggestions of the possibility of summit delays, especially by US President Trump. The US became increasingly worried when they revealed that no North Korean officials had proceeded to Singapore in the preparatory stages for the summit. US President Trump reacted to North Korean fury about Bolton’s comments by revealing that he felt there was a change of attitude after Kim’s Dalian meeting. There was no further elaboration. The straw that appeared to break the camel’s back was US Vice President Mike Pence’s comments about North Korea ending up like Libya if they did not go ahead with the resolution of the nuclear issue. This infuriated the North Koreans even more.


President Trump then cancelled the summit. This was followed up by a personal letter from him containing a warning to North Korea about the formidable US nuclear arsenal. President Trump clearly said he did not wish to use this power. But the last paragraph of President Trump’s letter contained an escape clause where he indicated that if Kim had a change of mind, he could contact President Trump to re-ignite the possibility of summit talks.


The letter of cancellation was followed by President Trump’s media appearance at the White House explaining the reasons for the cancellation. He cited North Korean attitudes, including the responses to Vice President Mike Pence as a reason for the cancellation. President Trump also reiterated the formidable firepower that the US possesses. His White House narrative reflected the contents of his letter in emphasizing the missed opportunities. He continued to keep the lines of communication open for Kim. President Trump also said that the US allies Japan and South Korea stood ready to coordinate with the US to respond to any North Korean provocation. President Trump mentioned that Tokyo and Seoul were willing to shoulder the resources need for any responses to provocation. He had also personally instructed US Defense Secretary James Mattis to put US troops on standby.


After that White House appearance by President Trump, South Korea, France, Singapore and other countries as well as the United Nations Secretary General expressed their regrets. President Moon from South Korea then stepped up and made a surprise visit to Panmunjom and met North Korean Leader Kim where they revived the hopes of a possible summit on June 12, 2018. This turn of events was followed by President Trump becoming positive on the talks taking place. In fact, on May 28, US personnel led by a US ambassador (the current ambassador to the Philippines and former ambassador to South Korea) headed to Singapore, supporting speculation that the talks may indeed take place.

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