Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un signed a “historic” document concluding the unprecedented summit between a US president and a North Korean leader.
Trump described the agreement as “comprehensive” and characterised it as embodying substantial commitments. Let’s analyse the agreement to see what was actually agreed.
The agreement recites “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK,” whilst Kim Jong-un “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.” Following this preamble, and a recognition that relations between the US and North Korea would be good for world peace, and confidence building can “promote” denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, the two leaders “stated” four matters. These are: first, the two sides committed to establish “new … relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity;” second, they will “join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula;” third, North Korea reaffirms the “April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration …[and] commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula;” and fourth, they “commit to recovering POW/MIA remains” and repatriate already identified remains.
The agreement closes with a commitment “to implement the stipulations in this joint statement fully and expeditiously,” and hold further talks. This is not a legal agreement. It is merely a political agreement – both sides are making promises that cannot be enforced legally.
A legal agreement – a treaty – is qualitatively different to this agreement signed by Trump. Under article 2, section 2, clause 2 of the US constitution, the president “shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two-thirds of the Senators present concur.”
This is an executive agreement – concluded solely by the president of the US. And he can terminate it when he pleases. Notably, the Iran nuclear deal or JCPOA was also an executive agreement. It was terminated solely by the president. So, Trump or his successor can rip this agreement with Kim to bits. If Kim was seeking a meaningful deal, based on the recent experience with JCPOA, he would have been safer with a treaty. To be sure, a treaty was unlikely because there was insufficient time to secure agreement on key matters.
Then, the text shows the parties have not made substantial commitments. The first promise says “President Trump” – as distinct from the United States – “committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK.” This is significant. The president committing to provide a security guarantee is arguably different from the US making such a promise.
What kind of “security guarantee” can Trump provide? He can promise to abstain from regime change as long as he is in office. No more.
Even if the US had entered into a non-aggression pact – a legal agreement – with DPRK, it would not mean much.
History proves great powers rarely tie their hands and eliminate aggression when it is in their self-interest. Notably, the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact concluded between Hitler and Stalin in 1939 pledged non-aggression against each other. It was meaningless in the end.
Similarly, the security guarantee would be worthless if North Koreans revolt against Kim or if North Korea threatens the US. No US president would be able to justify protecting a dictator suppressing his own people. The political cost would be too high.
Obviously, if Kim threatens the US, the “security guarantee” would also be rendered nought. The commitment to “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” despite its “unwavering” and “firm” nature, is similarly meaningless. As noted previously, “denuclearization” has not been defined, and the US and DPRK disagree on its meaning.
Turning then to the four statements, the first three are anodyne promises that don’t entail any significant change. Neither party is giving up anything. The fourth promise – to recover and repatriate POW/MIA remains is meaningful. It represents a good gesture by Kim.
If the promises are not legally binding, what do they tell us about the parties’ intentions?
Given that the commitments are non-legal, the context helps to understand intentions and forecast future developments.
While we don’t know much about Kim’s perspective, the KCNA reports that “Kim Jong-un clarified the stand that if the US side takes genuine measures for building trust in order to improve the DPRK-US relationship, the DPRK, too, can continue to take additional goodwill measures of the next stage commensurate with them.” In other words, not yielding much.
We have good contextual information about Trump’s views from his press conference post summit. Trump believes that Kim recognises the “tremendous potential for North Korea.” There is “no limit to what North Korea can achieve when it gives up nuclear weapons,” and “these are truly gifted people.” Second, echoing Kim, the president said “the past does not have to define the future” and “adversaries can indeed become friends.” This de-couples future initiatives from the previous failed record.
Third, Trump said “only the most courageous can make peace” – seeming to break from his previous aggressive posture. Fourth, the agreement evidences an “unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization,” “it will be verified,” and “the language is very strong.” Fifth, he accepted that “it takes a long time to pull off denuclearization …scientifically it takes time …” but “when you hit a certain point you can’t go back.”
Sixth, in a gesture of goodwill, Trump promised to “stop the war games which will save us a tremendous amount of money plus … it is very provocative.” Again, making a significant departure from past practice, Trump diplomatically stated it is “inappropriate to be having war games” when “we are signing a comprehensive agreement.” This is a sign of goodwill.
Seventh, “sanctions will remain” until “the menace of nuclear weapons …[are] removed.” Trump claimed that he looks “forward to taking them off.” Eighth, human rights issues were “discussed relatively briefly,” but “will be discussed more in the future.”
Ninth, Trump seems to recognise the dangers of military conflict and the severe risks of massive casualties. He said: “I don’t want to be threatening,” “Seoul has 28 million people – its right next to DMZ” and “you could have lost 20 million people, 30 million people.” Tenth, Trump thinks North Korea is to be trusted this time because Kim “did not have confidence in a president previously” and “because it is a different president.”
Comparing the two positions, the agreement represents a first step in a long journey.
In the final analysis, this is probably the best outcome in a bad situation. A major opening up of North Korea is unlikely because of entrenched doctrines of juche and songun (self-reliance and military-first). The regime’s Ten Principles also firmly set out Kim Jong-un-ism as the non-negotiable and foundational attribute of the country. In such circumstances, a major transformation would be suicide for Kim – if North Koreans are told to revise their views about the US and embrace capitalism they might topple Kim and seek justice for past wrongs. Therefore, Trump could only secure an agreement that may provide the foundation for a legal agreement in the future. It is a minor victory.