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OPED: Summit a start, but no breakthrough
The outcome of the Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un summit in Singapore brings to mind the old Army quip: "Hurry up and wait."
The urgency of holding a meeting between the top leaders of North Korea and the United States, rather than diplomatic professionals, is perhaps best explained by the personality and mind-set of our first reality TV star president. The freshly signed joint statement of this "epochal event" — not merely historic, mind you, but epochal — is roughly what could be expected to emerge from the preceding two weeks or so of working-level talks. Vague and broad, it endorses a set of "mutual confidence building" steps, ending with a promise to continue working out the details. It promises a return to diplomatic engagement, but it's not any sort of breakthrough.
Set aside whether a presidential meeting was needed to reach this point. What exactly does the joint statement say? How does it stack up against the two countries' on-again, off-again diplomatic commitments over the past quarter-century, and what does it really mean?
After the throat-clearing section at the top, the statement boils down to four points. The first is a commitment to "establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity."
This is a vow that Washington and Pyongyang renew about every five to six years. The October 1994 Agreed Framework pledged to "move toward full normalization of political and economic relations." The Joint Communique signed at the White House in October 2000 promised to "make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity." The September 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks concluded in Beijing contained an undertaking for the two states "to respect each other's sovereignty, exist peacefully together, and take steps to normalize their relations." The February 2012 "Leap Day Deal" contained an American undertaking "to take steps to improve our bilateral relationship in the spirit of mutual respect for sovereignty and equality."
The second point is a commitment to "join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula."
The term "peace regime" is a familiar bit of Korea-specific diplomacy, meaning the replacement of the Korean War Armistice with something more permanent, probably in the form of an agreement between the two Koreas, the United States and China, to be endorsed in a United Nations Security Council Resolution.
The October 2000 Joint Communique discussed how to "formally end the Korean War by replacing the 1953 Armistice Agreement with permanent peace arrangements." The September 2005 Joint Statement and a subsequent February 2007 agreement proposed the separate negotiation of "a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula." The same sentiment appeared in the declaration of the second summit meeting of the two Koreas, held in October 2007, which recognized "the need to end the current armistice regime and build a permanent peace regime." The "Panmunjom Declaration" issued in April after Kim met with Moon Jae-in in the third such summit called for "turning the armistice into a peace treaty, and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime."
The third point in the Trump-Kim statement finally gets to the heart of things from the U.S. perspective. It is almost a direct quote from the April meeting: "(T)he DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
The phrase "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" goes all the way back to a declaration by the two Koreas signed in January 1992 and periodically reaffirmed. The September 2005 Joint Statement introduced a new twist, calling for "the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner." The Panmunjom Declaration doesn't include "verifiable," but cites "the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula."
The current repetition of "complete denuclearization" seems to fall somewhat short of the variation lately demanded by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: the "complete and verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
The fourth point is a commitment "to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified." Joint U.S.-North Korean searches for the remains of the Korean War dead took place between 1996 and 2005. The resumption of this practice is overdue and will certainly contribute to goodwill.
The Trump-Kim Joint Statement contains little that can be called new. It marks what statisticians call "regression toward the mean" — the tendency for extreme conditions to give way to the familiar over time. And that's good. Even if a theatrical summit meeting wasn't really needed, diplomacy is now back on track. With patience and modest expectations, progress is possible.
Joshua Pollack is a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and editor of the Nonproliferation Review.