This is a local re-post of a Singapore response piece I wrote for the Lowy Institute a few days ago.
I’ll be honest and say that I still don’t really know what Trump achieved in Singapore. He’s running around the US and Fox claiming that he solved North Korea and and all that. But that’s not true. Just go read the Sentosa Declaration. It’s only 400 words and mostly aspirational. That’s not bad, but hardly worth presidential involvement.
In effect, what it really does is remove the Americans from the process and let Moon run this détente basically as he sees fit. Whether or not that is good thing depends on your North Korea politics, but the most important thing about Sentosa is that Trump got his spectacle and can now forget about North Korea and go back to Mueller and the Deep State and all that.
Moon now has checked the American box. He’s got an 80% approval rating. The left just cleaned up in the local elections last week, which were partially a validation of the outreach program. And the left is the largest bloc in parliament. So all the stars are aligned for a major left-progressive effort on North Korea. For three decades, progressives told us they could solve this if the right and the layers of bureaucracy and inertia were just out of the way. Now comes the test of that.
The text follows the jump:
The Trump-Kim summit last week was a nothingburger – not good or bad, just nothing new really at all. After months of hype, including grossly inflated talk of a CVID (complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament) and a Nobel prize, US President Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jeong Un returned very little. As was quickly pointed out on Twitter and in the cable news coverage, the Sentosa Declaration was disappointingly similar to previous statements. In fact, it was somewhat inferior.
In practice, going forward now, the fizzle in Singapore opens the door to South Korean President Moon Jae-In to run this year’s North Korea détente as he sees fit. Moon’s party also cleaned up in last week’s local elections in South Korea. Even the mayoralty of the city I live in, Busan, was won by the primary left-wing party, the Democratic Party. I believe this has never happened before. This was in part a validation of Moon’s outreach strategy.
The South Korean left is now in a strong position from which to pursue a vigorous détente. The Democrats are the largest bloc in the legislature. Moon is a liberal with an 80% approval rating. The Democrats just won elections in the middle of the détente season. And Trump has effectively withdrawn from the peace process.
Singapore was, therefore, a curious sort of win for engagers. As South Korea’s only ally, the US had to be involved in the peace process in some way. The US is the world’s sole superpower; it is deeply vested in northeast Asia. Around 300,000 Americans live in South Korea, and the US defense shield has been central to South Korean security for decades. So, Washington’s participation was inevitable.
But Trump is notoriously lazy and checked-out from policy detail. He is also impulsive, belligerent, and unpredictable. Last year it seemed like he might start a nuclear war. The US has also been generally more hawkish on North Korea than the South. So for engagers, Singapore takes care of a few necessary elements:
It ties Trump ever more tightly to a diplomatic track, making backsliding toward last year’s war threats harder. Trump’s media addiction is now sated. He got his big TV appearance; he got the global publicity he craves. He can now claim, as he already has on Twitter and in Trumpist-conservative media back home, to have taken care of the North Korean problem. He can now push it all onto Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and go back to attacking his domestic enemies, which interests him far more than the thorny Korean issues which would require real focus and energy to manage. But because the Sentosa Declaration has no hard substance to it, Moon is not locked into any framework or direction by it. It is the best of both worlds for Moon: Trump’s taste for substance-free publicity and disdain for detail both removes him from the process now, and lets Moon more or less do whatever he likes.
This is good or bad depending on your North Korea politics of course. The South Korean left has long complained that the US intervenes too much in Korean politics and that the two Koreas should be left to their own devices. Conservatives worry that without US hawkishness on North Korea, the South Korean left will offer a lot for very little. The South Korean left has long flirted with the idea of a federation of some kind. Conservatives have often opposed this, because they fear it will turn into semi-permanent subsidization of the North, and lead to curbs on freedoms in the South. It is unclear if Moon has enough political support to push something like a Greater Koryo Confederation, but if there was ever a time to try, this is it. The political winds are about as favorable as they are going to get for leftist, big-bang approach to a final status deal with North Korea.
The promise of the left for a generation regarding North Korea was that it represented a different, less confrontational approach than the usual suspects on the right. In this narrative, the old guard which held the South Korean presidency for decades, and the hawks who filled the national security bureaucracies in the US and South Korea for decades, had little to offer but more competition, threats of force, and the status quo. Those hawks dragged their feet out of deep distrust for North Korea. Now we have a chance to test the outreach argument. Trump has recessed himself. Moon has the political support for a major effort. He knows the issues as well as any liberal of his generation. This is it. Maybe he can pull it off. I am doubtful myself, but we wish him luck.