President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un provide a framework for talks that could transform North Korea's place in the world
North Korea meets America's Fire and Fury with Art of the Deal
When the diplomat Jonathan Powell met North Korean officials late last December in Pyongyang, they showed him copies of Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal, which they were scouring for insights.
By the time Mr Powell, now an international mediator, returned earlier this year the North Koreans were bandying “PDF copies” of Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s accounts of the inner workings of the Trump White House.
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un kickstarted negotiations with President Trump at Tuesday’s meeting in Singapore. The pair signed a declaration based on four key points. Mr Powell said he saw the “heads of agreement” as a key breakthrough.
“[President Trump] has managed to disrupt the failed relationship with North Korea,” he said.
Bruce Klinger, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former deputy head of CIA North Korea division, was one of a chorus of experts who disagreed with the US president’s assessment that a new history was in the making.
“This is very disappointing,” he said. “Each of the four main points was in previous documents with North Korea, some in a stronger, more encompassing way.”
While North Korea reaffirmed a commitment to "complete denuclearisation" it said nothing about the key conditions that disarmament be verifiable and irreversible. An expected commitment to ending the 1950s Korean war armistice did not emerge.
Meanwhile, Mr Trump said he would end “very provocative” military exercises with South Korea and said denuclearisation would take “a long time scientifically”. A White House invite was passed along the table to Mr Kim.
The meeting turned more than two decades of negotiations on its head. The details of a settlement will be discussed after the handshake. A cycle in which North Korea offers dramatic concessions only to scupper its commitments has been broken.
President Bill Clinton negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework pact that was have rewarded Pyongyang’s abandonment of a plutonium programme with energy and trade concessions. Although the process eventually failed, the talks kept going for the rest of the decade and ultimately halted North Korea’s production for eight years.
While George W Bush pulled out of the Agreed Framework in 2002 after it became clear that North Korea had switched focus to uranium enrichment but the subsequent six-party talks brokered by Beijing stretched all the way through 2007.
Various lesser deals were later sealed, including the Leap Day deal in 2012 that was supposed to bring in a new moratorium. The following February, North Korea carried out its third nuclear test, inducing a vortex of distrust right up to the start of 2018.
Six months ago it was conceived that the world would wake to nuclear strikes at any time. Robert Gallucci, the former US ambassador who led the negotiations for President Clinton, was one of those concerned enough to warn military action could happen “very, very quickly”.
Yet, amid the gloom, he warned the world was getting the North Korea regime wrong. “What they don’t want is a war,” he told an interviewer last year. “I’m certain the North Koreans do not see themselves winning a war against the US.”
Neither Mr Kim nor his officials have any interest in a suicidal confrontation with the US, he added.
President Trump’s warning of fire and fury reigning down on the regime marked a step change in the US stance. President Barack Obama sought to use sanctions as part of a policy of containment against Pyongyang. The White House approach was dubbed strategic patience and handed the initiative to Beijing, which kept tensions from boiling over while Pyongyang developed an arsenal of up to a dozen devices and enough material to make up to 60 nuclear bombs.
This was a mistake that allowed North Korea to gain a prize it sought from the late 1980s, according to Mr Gallucci. “I thought he was prepared to accept containment as a way of dealing with the North Korean problem but the North Korea problem was getting substantially worse as we were trying to contain it.”
Mr Trump’s threats by contrast restored the element of deterrence that has often underpinned successful nuclear talks.
Having achieved a nuclear weapon capability, Mr Kim has also made changes in North Korea’s state ideology, declaring a “new strategic line on carrying out economic construction and building nuclear armed forces simultaneously”.
The “Songun” or military first policy of his father Kim Jong-il was completed in early 2018 and Mr Kim declared the country would henceforth focus on economic development through his “byungjin” philosophy.
When President Trump spoke of a great gift of property development for the North Koreans at Tuesday’s press conference, he was signalling the US could at last work with its foe to introduce prosperity to the Stalinist state.
Much could still go wrong. North Korea continues to keep tens of millions of its citizens subjugated and on the brink of starvation. The 34-year old leader is a combustible figure, as is Mr Trump. An analysis by the International institute of Strategic Studies pointed out that North Korea launched a global cyber attack in 2014 when Sony Pictures released a satirical film based on a plot to kill Kim and announced war preparations in 2015 when South Korea turned on the loudspeakers at the 38th parallel demilitarised zone.
“Thus even amid the handshakes and summits, there will continue to be reason for North Korea to take offence and cause it in return,” it concluded.