At long last, the much-touted Trump-Kim summit has taken place, resulting in a joint statement that U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed to much fanfare. Ultimately, this top-level meeting serves as a starting point and paves the way for lower-level officials to work out the details of the broad framework put in place by Trump and Kim. That process could begin as early as next week.
In our 2018 Third-Quarter Forecast, we said that the core question regarding North Korea-U.S. tensions is whether the two sides would muster the political will to develop a framework for denuclearization. With the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the two countries have signaled that, indeed, the political will is there. Now, the details need to be worked out in lower-level meetings.
Trump and Kim's joint statement centered on the United States and North Korea committing to several key things: establishing new bilateral relations, making a joint effort to establish lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, working toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and recovering the remains of U.S. soldiers from the Korean War. Trump also offered unspecified "security guarantees" to North Korea.
Most significantly, in exchange for North Korea agreeing to what has been referred to as "complete denuclearization," the United States suggested that it may ease its sanctions on North Korea prior to complete denuclearization and that it will halt U.S.-South Korea military exercises.
By affirming that "mutual confidence building can promote the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," the statement indicated that the United States is willing to accept the phased approach to denuclearization that North Korea desires. In a phased approach, both sides would offer incentives along the way to denuclearization, rather than the United States waiting until the process is complete before offering any tradeoffs. For the time being, Trump emphasized that sanctions would remain in effect, but he said they could be removed when North Korea makes a certain degree of progress in its denuclearization.
Trump also said that U.S.-South Korea military exercises would stop, noting both that North Korea would appreciate the move and that it would save the United States a substantial amount of money. The president added, however, that the United States would not be pulling troops out of the Korean Peninsula at this point.
What Trump and Kim have agreed to is a basic framework deal that — like the Panmunjom Declaration between North and South Korea — sets in motion a technical dialogue, allowing lower-level officials to hash out concrete points of action that could de-escalate tensions. Indeed, the Trump-Kim joint statement stipulated that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would next work with a North Korean counterpart to implement the summit agreements.
Trump emphasized in his remarks that the two sides had agreed to more than was included in the document, noting that North Korea said it would dismantle a missile engine testing site. The U.S. president also said that the denuclearization process would begin "very quickly" and that this initial meeting would give way to more. He declared that he "absolutely will" invite the North Korean leader to the White House, and that the two countries would likely need another summit. Kim reportedly accepted the invitation.
For North Korea, this summit has allowed the country to accomplish its goal of engaging with the United States as a peer, also introducing opportunities for North Korea to move toward a Korean War peace deal. Trump emphasized his wish to formally end the war and said he would want to include South Korea and China as signatories to the final treaty.
The next steps for both the United States and North Korea will be crucial, as the two sides work to build trust and sort through thorny technical details. However, even if the process breaks down in the long run, the landmark summit, which allowed North Korea space for a diplomatic breakout, will make it more difficult for the United States to return to a maximum pressure campaign.
The Regional Ramifications
Of all the regional players, South Korea has been the most eager to see the United States and North Korea ease away from the warpath. It has been active in leveraging inter-Korean ties to keep the U.S.-North Korea dialogue on track. Now, South Korea will do everything in its power to ensure that the momentum continues. However, it is unclear what the U.S. halt of military exercises would mean specifically and whether South Korea itself was consulted about the decision. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Seoul immediately following the summit to convey the details of the outcome in person.
Japan is still the odd man out in this emerging dynamic. While Trump said that he did bring up Japanese concerns about Cold War-era abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korea, Pyongyang does not appear to have shifted its stance on this contentious issue. And if the United States and South Korea do in fact halt their war games, this will cause some concern for Japan about the integrity of the U.S.-led defense strategy in Northeast Asia.
For China, the symbolic agreement and improved ties between the United States and North Korea are positive developments — at least, as long as they result in a U.S.-North Korea relationship that sits somewhere in between rapid rapprochement and outright failure.
In order to ease immediate concerns over military confrontation, China wants North Korea to make clear progress toward reducing its nuclear capacity and to refrain from further missile and nuclear tests. The U.S. decision to cease military exercises introduces the prospect of a limited U.S. defense posture, and even if it also points to more flexible military adjustments in the region, it is perceived as a net gain for Beijing. Now that the summit has decreased the likelihood of a U.S.-North Korea military confrontation, China's next priority will be to ensure it plays a major role in shaping the Peninsula.