An Appraisal of the Singapore Joint Statement Between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Much Ado About Nothing?

An Appraisal of the Singapore Joint Statement Between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Much Ado About Nothing?

[Joseph Cho is a South Korea-based lawyer, qualified in New York as well as in England and Wales.]

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States…and as I said they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

President Donald J. Trump, 2017


In 2002, President George W. Bush identified North Korea as part of a tripartite group of “axis of evil” along with Iraq and Iran, which challenged “the international order with terror and weapons of mass destruction.” In fact, in the same year North Korea admitted having a “major clandestine nuclear-weapons development program” in place and has since been steadily expanding their nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities for twenty years. In the meantime, North Korea withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 2003 which it had signed off as a non-nuclear state in 1985. In June, 2018, a promising breakthrough came when President Donald J. Trump met with Chairman Kim Jung Eun of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) in Singapore for a summit. The Singapore Summit was a historic event in that President Trump was the first sitting United States president to meet a North Korean head of state face-to-face. Another element that made this Summit noteworthy was a joint statement signed by President Trump and Chairman Kim (Joint Statement). Based on the premise that “the establishment of new U.S.–DPRK relations will contribute to the peace and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula and of the world,” the Joint Statement calls for “transformed bilateral relations, building of an eventual peace regime, complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and recovery of U.S. soldier remains from the North” (emphasis added). While the Trump administration touted the Joint Statement for halting menacing DPRK missile tests thereby stalling further nuclear threats from North Korea, critics called it “a recycled pledge from previous statements of this type that have gone nowhere” and “a decidedly underwhelming document, consisting largely of generalities and platitudes.” 

It has been nearly four years since the Singapore Summit. The purpose of this blog is to assess how the Joint Statement has been implemented to date. This analysis merits attention in that, albeit relatively weak in details, the Joint Statement is a statement of principles from the Singapore Summit that can guide both the United States and the DPRK in terms of navigating through and following up on the commitments contained therein the most notable being complete and verifiable “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” As will be analyzed in what follows, this blog will note that the Joint Statement is considered a failure for now, which may trigger South Korea to adopt a nuclear arms program in due course, given the clear and present danger of ongoing threats of aggression from the DPRK.  

Provocations and Negotiations

The DPRK constitution describes the country as a nuclear state. Kim Jong Un, who came to the helm in 2011, conducted, following the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States in January, 2017, a total of five major missile tests between February, 2017 and November, 2017 involving medium-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. These military tests provoked the United States almost to the point of launching military strikes against the DPRK in the event of the latter’s nuclear attacks. Through a dedicated intermediary role by President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea), however, President Trump and Chairman Kim met in Singapore for the first ever face-to-face bilateral summit between the two countries.   

In the meantime, the DPRK is yet to demonstrate any conspicuous signs of dismantling its nuclear programs pursuant to the Joint Statement. Given this reluctance and persistent inattention on the part of the DPRK, it is envisaged that the following options may be on the table when it comes to bringing the Joint Statement to a recognizable form of fruition. First, the United States may consider inducing Kim Jong Un to abide by the Joint Statement largely through diplomatic channels. Such civilized pressure tactic may work best when implemented in tandem with ongoing full-scale economic sanctions aimed against the target state. Second, the United States may assume that the tools of diplomacy would go only so far and are bound to falter at the end of the day when it comes to denuclearizing the DPRK, which has track records of reneging on its past disarmament commitments including in the context of multilateral talks. Since, in the process, the DPRK is likely to further advance its nuclear capabilities and to hone to perfection the existing stockpiles of nuclear warheads, it may be in the United States’ interests to contemplate exercising military options including preemptive strikes to bring North Korea into compliance with the Joint Statement. Third, based on the assumption that fully denuclearizing the DPRK is neither a viable option nor a strategy with promising payoffs down the line, the United State may consider recognizing the DPRK as a de facto nuclear state and attempt to craft a good enough deal based on such tacit recognition. Based on an acknowledgement to that effect, the DPRK may join the ranks of India, Pakistan, and Israel, de facto nuclear weapon states that are not formally recognized under the NPT. This type of deal may involve arms control whereby Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenals are regulated, rather than eradicated, with, hopefully, an ongoing system of inspection and monitoring for compliance in place.   

Path to Maximum Pressure

The path the Trump administration opted for in furtherance of the Joint Statement was that of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (COVID) of the DPRK. As the former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo affirmed amidst rumors about Chairman Kim’s deteriorating health and whereabouts, Washington made a commitment to complete denuclearization, “regardless of what transpires inside of North Korea with respect to their leadership.” This United States policy is presumably based on a cautiously rosy forecast that, in the face of ongoing multinational COVID endeavors spearheaded by the United States against the Kim regime, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un may, voluntarily or otherwise, embrace COVID and eventually surrender the regime’s nuclear arsenal. Interestingly, the concept of COVID can be tracked back to as early as 2006. Hence, in October, 2006, John Bolton, who then served as the 25th United States Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), stated before a UN council that the United States “would impose strict demands on the DPRK not to conduct further nuclear tests or launch ballistic missiles… as well as to abandon all weapons of mass destruction programmes, whether nuclear, chemical or biological, in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.” (emphasis added). What constitutes COVID and how or whether COVID may be validly enforced in the DPRK may be a subject of debates both in theory and practice. At a minimum, however, COVID would require the presence of competent U.S. and international inspectors including those from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inside the country to verify progress of what is sought to be thorough denuclearization. In this regard, whether the term “firm and unwavering” commitment to denuclearization from the Joint Statement is in effect synonymous with COVID remains to be seen; there is, however, a school of thought that the term represents a face-saving compromise and in effect connotes “a definite commitment” on the part of Kim Jong Un to implement fully verifiable process of nuclear disarmament by the DPRK. 

Unfortunately, there is no discernible indication that the North Korean regime is following up on the text or tenor of the Joint Statement. On the contrary, in an address to the United Nations General Assembly, North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador Kim Song remarked that being situated in the geopolitical environment where “cutting-edge military hardware, including stealth fighters, continue to be introduced into the Korean peninsula and nuclear strike means of all kinds are directly aimed at the DPRK”, the DPRK has attained “the reliable and effective war deterrent for self-defense” to firmly defend the “peace and security of the Korean peninsula and the region.” Based on these and other pertinent data, it is predicted that North Korea may well present credible threats to the mainland United States soon, with land-based, nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), among others, under their belt. 

Efforts of the U.S. Government for DPRK Denuclearization 

Since the Singapore Summit, the United States was not merely talking the talk of denuclearization, but walking the walk of denuclearization in the form of commercial and economic sanctions in support of COVID efforts. These sanctions are in addition to a series of sanctions resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council, which consists of a total of fifteen members including the United States, since 2006 in response to the DPRK’s nuclear and missile activities. In the meantime, ongoing global sanctions have yet to lead to the DPRK’s denuclearization. This is in large part to the DPRK’s uncanny capabilities to penetrate global financial networks while evading sanctions with outside help. It is also because the effectiveness of UN sanctions has been undermined by certain countries’ failure to enforce them. 

Analysis and Conclusion

It appears that the aim of a peace regime coupled with complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, envisaged under the Joint Statement is all but a shattered visage at this point, as the statement did ultimately nothing in terms of rolling back the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program. This point is buttressed by the fact that North Korea has accelerated and ramped up munitions tests this year including the testings of a banned intercontinental ballistic missile followed by a submarine-launched ballistic missile. It is also reported that the DPRK regime is now gearing up for a test of nuclear weapons technology at a designated facility in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, amidst North Korea’s name-callings with President Biden, it appears that while acknowledging the Singapore Statement in a joint statement with the ROK in early 2021, the Biden administration’s North Korea policy will be involving a “calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK, ” even though what such policy will actually entail remains to be seen.      

In the meantime, in November, 2017, the Pentagon assessed that “(t)he only way to ‘locate and destroy — with complete certainty — all components of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs’ is through a ground invasion,” which may in turn trigger the DPRK’s military reaction, possibly with a nuclear weapon or two, against Seoul, South Korea. Seoul, which is the capital of the ROK and located only 23 km (or about 35 miles) away from the border with North Korea, is home to almost ten million people. In light of such a specter of a nuclear catastrophe, staging a military maneuver against North Korea to implement the country’s denuclearization is not considered a prudent move. 

Against the foregoing backdrop, to address the ongoing problem of North Korean disequilibrium and associated dangers on the Korean peninsula, Seoul may wish to consider designing a nuclear weapon regime of its own in due course. This will of course require South Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT regime following the procedural requirements thereunder and the folding of the United States’ nuclear umbrella when it comes to the RoK, once such program has been duly implemented. It is speculated such a nuclear RoK program can be pursued successfully with some strings attached, in close consultation with the United States and other member states concerned.     

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Asia-Pacific, Featured, General, National Security Law, North America
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