The first-ever meeting between sitting U.S. and North Korean leaders is set to happen in Singapore with potentially major consequences for Asia and the international community.
President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who arrived separately to the Southeast Asian city-state on Sunday, are due to meet face-to-face Tuesday morning at the Capella Hotel, a luxury hotel located on the resort island of Sentosa.
Washington is hoping the bilateral discussions will be the first of many with Kim’s government, eventually culminating with the country surrendering its nuclear capabilities. That weapons program has become a threat to neighbors such as Seoul and Tokyo — and potentially even for the U.S. mainland.
For decades, Pyongyang has sought to depict the world’s largest economy as an imperialist aggressor for its role in the Korean War while simultaneously blaming Washington for the dire economic situation that’s been exacerbated by international sanctions.
The isolated country has long said it’s justified in seeking nukes in light of the “extreme and direct nuclear threat” from the U.S., which it accuses of pushing for regime change.
Tuesday’s meeting is considered a diplomatic breakthrough given that history, but many experts have said the summit is a mistake on Washington’s part since it legitimatizes Kim’s regime and places him as an equal to Trump. But, going forward, geopolitical analysts said a realistic goal is for both parties to agree to initial confidence-building measures that will narrow the massive trust deficit that currently exists between them.
Here’s a breakdown of the major points behind the historic event.
Nuclear policy and security experts simply don’t believe Pyongyang will relinquish technology that’s become central to the North Korean identity.
In the past, Pyongyang has said it may denuclearize only if certain conditions are fulfilled. Those include terminating America’s military presence in South Korea as well as ending the U.S. regional nuclear umbrella, a security arrangement in which Washington promises in-kind retaliation on behalf of close allies if they are attacked with nuclear weapons.
“The greatest risk is if we get a political agreement at this summit and the optics look nice but then it falls apart on the details — maybe not in six months, maybe not in one year but in five years,” Michael Kovrig, senior advisor at the International Crisis Group, told CNBC on Monday.
“That’s why we need a clear, step-by-step process that goes action-for-action [and] creates a security environment where the North Koreans are actually willing to take steps and the United States is in a position to monitor and verify those steps.”
Even if the North Koreans come out of the summit saying they are committed to denuclearization, that hardly guarantees anything. The regime has made commitments before, and monitoring compliance to an agreement would likely present a challenge.
Ahead of the summit, much has been said about North Korea’s willingness to “denuclearize” in exchange for an easing of U.S. and international pressure.
But many have suggested that the two parties may be operating on different definitions of the critical term.
For the U.S., the term means North Korea relinquishing nuclear weapons. But for Pyongyang, “denuclearization” includes a termination of America’s alliances in the region and the removal of its military presence in South Korea.
“That is a different phrasing from this very broad denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor and senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said at a Washington event.
Kim’s offer to hold talks is just a ploy to gain concessions, according to several strategists, who said the millennial ruler is simply resuscitating the approach his predecessors pursued in previous peace attempts.
Years of failed negotiations, most notably during the 2003-2009 Six-Party Talks, indicate the North’s long-standing pattern of offering talks in exchange for resources, aid, a loosening of sanctions — or to simply buy time for its nuclear program.
The outcome of Tuesday’s summit is of critical importance to the rest of the region, particularly Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing.
If the North insists on the U.S. removal of troops in South Korea in exchange for staged disarmament, that could send a signal to Asian nations that Washington will no longer be a stable military presence in the region. And, in the meantime, it could leave South Korea and Japan exposed to the North’s shorter-range missiles.
However, a reduced American presence is seen benefiting Beijing and Moscow, which both want to prevent U.S. dominance in North Asia.