5 Questions with Korea Expert Charles Armstrong on the Trump-Kim Summit

June 12, 2018
Charles Armstrong

Charles K. Armstrong is the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences at Columbia and the author of five books on the two countries. Here, he discusses the outcome of the summit between President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Q. What is your overall assessment of the Trump-Kim summit?

A. As the first-ever meeting between the President of the US and the leader of North Korea, the Singapore Summit was a historic event that has the potential to reshape security in Northeast Asia and bring a more stable peace to the Korean peninsula. But the joint U.S.-North Korea declaration was quite vague and short on specifics. It got to the heart of the matter U.S. commitment to guarantee security to North Korea, and North Korea's commitment to denuclearizationand was an important step forward. The summit marks the beginning of a lengthy process of demilitarization and peace-building. We will see in the weeks and months ahead whether the momentum of the summit can be sustained and details of process and implementation of the summit's goals can be worked out.

Q. What brings Kim Jong-un to the table this time?

A. North Korea has wanted a summit meeting with the U.S. president since the 1990s, as it would give their leader legitimacy on the world stage and recognition as an equal partner with the U.S. But since coming to power in late 2011 Kim Jong-un has focused on developing North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities, and agreed to meet with South Korea and the U.S. after he claimed the ability to deter the U.S. in late 2017. Economic pressure through stringent sanctions helped bring Kim to the table as well, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in played a vital role in reaching out to North Korea, meeting with Kim, and mediating between North Korea and the U.S. for a summit meeting.

Q. What is the likelihood that Trump will get “complete denuclearization” from Kim Jong-un, as Mike Pompeo claims?

A. The summit declaration speaks of "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" but makes no mention of process or timetable. North Korea agreed to the goal of denuclearization but getting there is not likely to be easy.

Q. If that doesn’t happen, what is a fallback position?

A. Hopefully we will not return to the confrontation of late 2017, when the US and North Korea appeared on the brink of war over North Korea's nuclear program. Both sides need to manage expectations, and take things step-by-step. As long as the two sides remain in dialogue and North Korea maintains its moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, while the US offers security assurances (for example by suspending military exercises with South Korea) the situation should remain stable. But if one side sees the other as reneging on its promises, we could be back to Square One.

Q. Who benefited the most from the summit?

A. Both Trump and Kim gained from the meeting. Trump can claim a foreign policy victory, although that victory may be more symbolic than substantive, but Kim is the bigger winner having been recognized as a negotiating partner by the U.S. and gained a promise of security from North Korea's longtime adversary. Kim can claim he brought the U.S. to the negotiating table through his robust pursuit of nuclear deterrence, and can now focus on economic development at home, which he says is his paramount goal.

—Sabina Lee