Was The Singapore Summit Just A Stunt For TV Cameras?

Originally published on June 13, 2018 9:04 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

They met, they shook hands, they exchanged praise and they signed an agreement. President Trump and North Korea's Leader Kim Jong Un agreed to work towards denuclearizing North Korea. As part of that, President Trump said the U.S. would be willing to reduce its military presence on the Korean Peninsula. Here's what he said in a press conference here.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's very expensive, and I didn't like it. And what I did say is - and I think it's very provocative. I have to tell you, Jennifer. It's a very provocative situation when I see that and you have a country right next door. So under the circumstances that we are negotiating a very comprehensive, complete deal, I think it's inappropriate to be having war games. So number one, we save money - a lot. And, number two, it really is something that I think they very much appreciated.

MARTIN: For more, we're joined now by Frank Aum. He's a former senior adviser for North Korea at the Department of Defense. He served under the Obama administration, and he joins us now. Frank, thanks for being here.

FRANK AUM: Thank you. It's good to be here.

MARTIN: So these military exercises are a way that the U.S., in partnership with South Korea, could demonstrate power on the Korean Peninsula as a bulwark against North Korean aggression. How significant is it that the president now says they are coming to an end? Is this a big concession on the part of the U.S.?

AUM: I think it was the biggest takeaway from the Trump-Kim summit. And it depends on how you look at it. I think it was very surprising that President Trump was critical of the exercises. He said that they are provocative. He said they were costly. And so from that perspective, there's a lot of people who'll take that very negatively because our U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula and exercises that they do with the South Korean troops provide a lot of assurance to the South Korean people, and they maintain readiness and deterrence against the North Korean threat. So I think this could be seen as a very unwarranted concession this early in the game. But there's also a positive aspect. In 1992, the Team Spirit exercises were canceled, and that directly led to a nuclear agreement from North Korea, an IAEA safeguards agreement, and also created a positive environment for what eventually led to the 1994 agreed framework. So I think you'll have critics and proponents on each side.

MARTIN: In the press conference after these two leaders met and signed this agreement - President Trump held a press conference, and there was a lot of talk about whether or not there is teeth to this agreement. We have seen North Korea make promises to denuclearize before. President Trump was asked if he and Kim Jong Un spoke about verifiable denuclearization. Let's listen to that exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

TRUMP: We'll be verifying. It'll be verified.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How is that going to be achieved, Mr. President?

TRUMP: Well, it's going to be achieved by having a lot of people there and as we develop a certain trust. And we think we have done that. Secretary Pompeo's been really doing a fantastic job. His staff, everybody. As we do that, we're going to have a lot of people there, and we're going to be working with them on a lot of other things. But this is complete denuclearization of North Korea, and it will be verified.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Will those people be Americans or international?

TRUMP: Combinations of both.

MARTIN: The reporter there asking about the inspectors and who's actually going to be making sure this is verifiable. Frank Aum, were you satisfied with that answer?

AUM: Well, I think first of all, I'll say that President Trump came into this summit setting a very low bar. He described it as a getting-to-know-you meeting plus. And so if that's the standard then he barely crossed over. I think the statement itself was very anodyne and bland, and it didn't address anything about verification, but maybe the point was that that was not their intent. I think what they were trying to do was basically set a broad parameter of framework in which the U.S. commits to provide security guarantees for North Korea and North Korea commits to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But overall, I think it's very underwhelming of an agreement. And so hopefully we'll see some more in the future.

MARTIN: So President Trump made a couple of - I think we can call them concessions. He's agreed to stop military exercises in, around the Korean Peninsula. He has at least suggested a troop drawdown. Did the U.S. concede too much in this dynamic? I mean, what did Kim Jong Un have to tangibly deliver here?

AUM: They did. I think, again, to stop military exercise this early in process without major concessions from North Korea is a significant concession that was unwarranted at this point. Again, like I said earlier, it may at the same time provide enough impetus for North Korea to feel like they're getting something from the U.S., and then they can start taking steps. It remains to be seen what those steps will be, and that's, I think, the disappointing part of this agreement. But there was language in the statement saying that Secretary Pompeo would be meeting with his appropriate counterpart to continue the negotiations. So we'll just have to see how that goes. I think also...

MARTIN: Let me ask you, though - let me just ask you, though, is there not value in holding this summit at all, in creating this kind of diplomatic opening, in getting these two men in the same room talking?

AUM: Absolutely. This is a historic meeting. And so regardless of all the criticism about this just being a TV stunt, reality TV, the fact that you have a North Korean leader sitting down with the U.S. president has tremendous symbolic value. It looks like they established rapport. And so that should set us off on the right foot going forward.

MARTIN: So you still think it was worth it? Even though the U.S. has made these concessions, as you see it, you still think holding the summit is a net positive?

AUM: Yes. Again, looking at where we're coming from last year where we're talking about fire and fury, the heightened tensions, the sharp rhetoric that was going back and forth, talk about bloody nose operations, to where we are today where the two sides are meeting and on a path hopefully towards what will be, if we can achieve, a freeze on North Korea's nuclear and missile activities and the U.S. can provide additional security guarantees and get on a pathway towards peace, I think that will definitely be worth it.

MARTIN: Frank Aum, former official at the Department of Defense. Thanks so much for your time. We appreciate it.

AUM: Good to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.