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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 29 New Delhi July 7, 2018

Singapore Summit on North Korea’s Nuclear Issue

Monday 9 July 2018

by Sudhakar Vaddi

Since almost seventy long years, the Korean Peninsula is a ground for a confrontation between the North Korea officially the Demo-cratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the United States (US). This alone made the first ever US-North Korea peace summit talks, held in Singapore on June 12, 2018, significent. The diplomatic stage for the Singapore summit was prepared through the sequence of events starting from the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea officially the Republic of Korea (RoK). Utilising this opportunity the heavily sanctioned North Korea sent a high-level delegation under Ms Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong-un, to Seoul and offered to put denuclearisation on the table in exchange for security guarantees. This positive development ultimately led to the third Inter-Korean Summit between President Moon Jae—In of South Korea and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on April 27, 2018. Both the leaders underlined the ongoing and unending mutual hostility due to trust deficiency and decided to establish permanent peace in the Korean Peninsula.

On the same lines, the Singapore summit was a noteworthy event on Denuclearisation of North Korea while being also aimed at establishing permanent peace in the Korean Peninsula. The outcome of the summit appeared to be a “freeze- for-freeze” solution in which North Korea agreed to suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests while the US ultimately agreed to North Korea’s long-term demand of halting the joint military exercises with South Korea [officially the Republic of Korea (RoK)]. The joint statement announced consists of three broad principles. They agreed to rework on their existing hostile relations, striving towards the goal of denuclearisation and joint efforts to establish a peace regime in the Korean Peninsula. Further, both countries also agreed to recover and repatriate the remains of the prisoners of war and soldiers who were declared missing in the Korean war of 1950-53.

Decoding the Nuclear Crises

The Korean War ended with an Armistice Agreement but not with a permanent peace agreement in 1953; since then, the US and North Korea technically are in a state of war. By violating Article II, section 13(d) of the Armistice which ceases the introduction of combat aircraft, armoured vehicles, weapons, and ammunition from abroad to the Korean Peninsula, the US brought in more than 1720 nuclear weapons turning South Korea into the biggest nuclear warehouse till the mid-1980s. Due to the existing security environment, Pyongyang introduced the Songun ‘Military First’ policy during the 1990s to protect its sovereignty. This was the starting-point of North Korea’s nuclear ambition. Consequently, the US stepped up efforts for diplomatic talks and concluded an Agreed Framework with North Korea in 1994.1 Under this pact, Pyongyang agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons programme in return for aid from the US, Japan, and South Korea through the Korean Energy Development Organisation (KEDO) project. After the 9/11 attacks and subsequent US policy of war on terror, the US has sent mixed signals by including North Korea’s name in an ‘axis of evil’ and also suspended the key energy project for North Korea. Further, in September 2002, Nuclear Posture Review listed North Korea as a country against which the US should be prepared to use nuclear weapons.2 Since the failure of the US commitment, North Korea announced “that it was no more a party of the agreed pact and formally announced that it was pulling out from NPT due to its energy requirements”.3 The subsequent hostile policy of the US directly led to North Korea’s first nuclear test on October 9, 2006. Since then, the isolated country conducted six nuclear tests from 2006 to 2017 and claimed that the final test was that of a hydrogen bomb.

US-RoK Joint Military Exercises

Military exercises have influenced the escalation of military tension in the Korean Peninsula for a long time. For ‘defensive’ purposes, the US and South Korea annually hold more than 40 team spirit joint military exercises—such as Key Resolve, Foal Eagle, and Ulji Freedom Guardian joint military exercises—by mobilising more than 500,000 US and South Korean troops with nuclear-powered submarines. North Korea always feared that these exercises were not defensive, but rather preparation for a pre-emptive attack.

The DPRK maintains that it would give up its nuclear programme if the US gives up its hostile policy.4 In fact, on several occasions, the DPRK advanced the proposal for the US suspension of joint military exercises in South Korea and its vicinity and the DPRK’s moratorium on the nuclear programme.5 North Korea insists that all exercises on the Korean Peninsula are gross violations of the half-century Armistice Agreement of 1953. So far, Washington wants Pyongyang to unilaterally hand over its nuclear weapons; however, in North Korea’s hand there is a list of prerequisites, including withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula, and termination of joint military exercises.

Tectonic Shift in US Policy?

Previously US President Barack Obama’s policy towards North Korea was defined as ‘strategic patience’.6 The Administration stated that it would not hold talks with the DPRK unless it first took steps towards denuclearisation. The DPRK asked for talks on numerous occasions to discuss various commitments, such as a peace treaty, US aid, the cancellation of US-RoK joint military exercises and cessation of the US nuclear threats towards the DPRK.7

The Obama Administration refused to talk unless the DPRK acted first by taking steps towards denuclearisation. This policy was severely condemned by the former US Secretary of Defense, William Perry, who charged the “Obama Administration for its excessive engage-ment in other regions and neglect of the situation on the Korean peninsula” and said: “It is high time for the US to end the seven decades of long DPRK-US confrontation which is deeply rooted in the Korean War.”8 Without addressing the root cause of the problem, President Trump announced the policy of ‘maximum pressure’ towards the impoverished North Korean regime initially. However, it seems now the US might have learned an important lesson—that it shouldn’t separate the North Korean nuclear issue from the Korean War hostility system that prevailed since almost the last 70 years.

Remarkably, at the Singapore summit, the US President accepted openly the view that the joint US-South Korean military exercises were “tremendously provocative” and “expensive”.9 Moreover, the President also viewed that it would be “inappropriate” for the joint military drills to take place while talks with the DPRK were ongoing. Further, it is the first time in history that an incumbent President of the US has confessed the actions of the US are highly ‘offensive’ in the Korean Peninsula. Perhaps, President Trump might have felt that it was absurd for North Korea to sit at the negotiating table with the US while its air was filled with dust from a war game. Trump’s announcement on cancellation of the exercises may “prevent the danger of a war and achieve solid peace on the Korean Peninsula”.

It is a strategically significant Confidence-Building Measure (CBM) that could be made ever in particular with the North Koreans who have been asking this from the US for the last several decades. As a reciprocal positive gesture, North Korea agreed to shut down the missile engine testing site in Dongchang-ri.

North Korea has lived under the continuous threat of nuclear destruction longer than any other country on earth. However, Pyongyang has said persistently that it would be willing to abandon its nuclear programme if the United States dropped its ‘inimical policy’ toward North Korea. The leaderships in both South and North Korea understand this phenomenon; consequently, the previous June 15, 2000, October 4, 2007 Joint Accords and ‘Panmunjom Declaration’ of April 27 focuses not on denuclearisation primarily but also to affirm a commitment to end the Cold War security environment in the Korean Peninsula as their top priority.10 North Korea has claimed it would have no reason to have nuclear weapons if military threats from the US were removed and its regime’s security guaranteed.11 In fact, recently North Korea demolished its Punggye-ri nuclear test site ahead of talks with the US.

Response of Major Powers

North Korea’s major economic partner, China, which is also one among the three parties that signed the Armistice Agreement with the US in 1953, expressed its firm optimism on the Singapore summit. Beijing has wanted a multilateral approach on North Korea’s nuclear issue since the beginning. In its official statement, it stated that “with joint efforts of China, North Korea, the US, the Korean Peninsula and the North-East Asia will surely embrace the bright prospects of peace, stability, development and prosperity”.12

Though Japan was pretty disappointed since there was no word on North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the US-North Korea peace summit, the strategic partner of the US in North-East Asia viewed these diplomatic developments as an effective approach for the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. Japanese economic sanctions are one of North Korea’s recent apprehensions. Japan has frozen assets of 103 private companies of North Korea after its nuclear and missile tests. After the summit, its Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, stated that Tokyo has no plan to give any financial aid to Pyongyang without a firm resolution of their long pending abduction issue.13

Russia welcomed the establishment of the US-North Korean dialogue and the agreements reached to resolve nuclear problems on the Korean Peninsula. Subsequently, Moscow announced that it was willing to lift all unilateral sanctions, which extraterritorially affect Pyong-yang’s economic ties with Russia.14 However, the general security scenario in North-East Asia, and the Korean Peninsula in particular, cannot change with just one bilateral summit meeting due to its complexities.

In conclusion, peaceful coexistence could be achieved through CBMs alone as under those both the US and North Korea can develop trust to overcome the long years of hatred, secrecy, and distrust. At the policy level, for suspending the Joint—Military Exercises, the US President deserves a big applause as it was a long overdue and politically difficult step.

However, there is no guarantee how long the US can continue this rational approach towards North Korea. A permanent legal security guarantee assurance from Washington to Pyongyang can lead to an amicable solution of North Korea’s nuclear issue.

Nevertheless the ‘broad principles enunciated in the Trump—Kim Joint Statement constitute an initial step towards reconciliation in the decades-long history of antagonism’ between the two countries. Building consensus between the major powers like China, Russia and Japan are inevitable for any security balancing act in the Korean Peninsula. The changing equations between the US and North Korea proved that the only alternative approach to resolve the issue of the Korean Peninsula is through political and diplomatic means. Perhaps, the rapproche-ment process between the US and North Korea would build a pathway to end their decades-long standoff and achieve a permanent and sustainable peace in the Korean Peninsula.


1. North Korea announced in 1993 that it was withdrawing from the treaty, but later suspended the decision and entered talks with the United States

2. The US-North Korea Agreed Framework at a Glance,, (accessed on May 30, 2018).

3. “US Ruptured Denuclearisation Process”, Korean Central News Agency, May 12, 2003.

4. Sang-Hyun Lee, “Bush’s Second-Term Korea Policy: Prospects and Options for South Korea”, East Asian Review, Vol 16, No. 4, 2004, p. 16.

5. North Korea offers to suspend nuclear tests if the U.S. suspends military drills, Reuters, January 10, 2015 (accessed on June 17, 2018).

6. Scott A. Snyder, “U.S. Policy Toward North Korea”, Council on Foreign Relations, (accessed on June 18, 2018).

7. North Korea says peace treaty, halt to exercises, would end nuclear tests, Reuters,, (accessed on June 16, 2018).

8. William J. Perry, “To confront North Korea, talk first and get tough later”, The Washington Post, January 6, 2014,
html? utm_term=.01913432b862
 (accessed on June 13, 2018).

9. Dan Lamothe, “Trump Pledged to end military exercises with South Korea. But will it ever happen?”, The Washington Post, June 12, 2018, (accessed on June 13, 2018)

10. The text of Joint Declaration, Yonhap News Agency, p. 4. For the full text of Joint Declaration during the Summit 2000, see Yonhap News Agency, June 15, 2000.

11. “North Korea will invite outside experts to observe closing of the nuclear test site, The Guardian, April 29, 2018, (accessed on June 18, 2018).

12. “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang’s Regular Press Conference”, MOFA, PRC, June 20, 2018, (accessed on June 27, 2018).

13. Japan claims that around 17 Japanese citizens were abducted during 1970-80s. However, North Korea stated that of the 17 people officially listed as having been abducted, five have returned to Japan in 2002; of the remaining 12, eight have died and four never entered the country.

14. “Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova”, MOFA, Russia, June 15, 2018, (accessed on June 17, 2018).

Dr Sudhakar Vaddi is an Assistant Professor, G.D. Goenka University, Gurugram.

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