Singapore summit falls flat as Trump’s concessions catch allies off guard

As we expected, the Singapore summit was light on substance and heavy on vague rhetoric that echoed past US-DPRK statements. Both leaders decided to skirt difficult issues entirely, kicking the denuclearisation can down the road.

  • Kim Jong-un emerged as the clear winner, having extracted a number of concessions from the US in exchange for only a broad promise to denuclearise. The outcome, combined with his reception as an equal by the governments of the US and Singapore, will cement his legitimacy at home and likely weaken domestic opposition to his regime.
  • Although the summit fell well short of his – unrealistic – expectations, President Trump will likely politically benefit from the meeting. The president will be keen to play up his credentials as a deal-maker, which has the potential to sway some voters towards the Republican party in the upcoming mid-term elections in November.
  • President Trump’s willingness to offer a halt to joint US-South Korean military exercises – and a hinted willingness to withdraw US forces from the Korean Peninsula – will have negative implications for regional dynamics over the coming months.
  • This offer amounts to a massive concession to the North, which is not expected to reciprocate. While the DPRK has agreed to dismantle a missile testing site, such a move is at best a token gesture that will have no impact on the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
  • Pyongyang has long demanded a halt to military exercises, while China will likely welcome any hint of possible US military withdrawal from the peninsula.
  • The official reaction from Seoul suggests that Trump’s offer was improvised on the day and was not coordinated with allies in advance. South Korea, as well as Japan, are likely to strongly oppose such a withdrawal. While pressure has the potential to persuade Trump to reconsider, relations between Washington and its two closest regional allies will likely be strained as a result.
  • Although Kim and Trump have agreed to continue dialogue – thereby at least ensuring tensions remain low for now – a breakthrough of any kind is highly unlikely for the foreseeable future. By hosting the summit and floating a freeze on exercises and a possible military withdrawal, the White House has forfeited a significant amount of leverage in any future negotiations.
  • Today’s events only strongly reaffirm our long-standing view that the North will not denuclearise. The Kim dynasty’s nuclear weapons have ensured it a seat at the table with the US president and a kind of high-level reception usually reserved for close partners and allies.
  • Pyongyang has no incentive to give up its "treasured sword", and today’s developments have made it clear that North Korea is now a de facto nuclear weapons state.

Miha Hribernik

Head of Asia, Risk Insight