An upbeat tone from US President Donald Trump who promised “a new chapter” in relations with North Korea, envisioning “great condos” along side the “great beaches” of Pyongyang, was not matched by experts and former officials in Washington, who were more cautious and sombre in their summary.
While the joint statement from the historic summit between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un committed to “work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”, there were no specifics on concrete steps to achieve these goals. On the other hand, Mr Trump, by declaring an end to US military exercises in Korea, signalled the first US compromise to Pyongyang, and something that China has long advocated.
But experts in Washington on both sides of the aisle saw no real win for the US from the summit, except in the larger theme of seeking diplomacy and averting war on the peninsula. “In a negotiation where there could only be one winner, it was the North Korean leadership that incontestably emerged from the talks better off,” said Nicholas Eberstadt of the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
He added that “all the initial benefits were pocketed by Pyongyang” while “all the initial concessions were offered by Washington”.
Following the summit, the US and its allies “must now move into damage control and salvage mode” to keep in place the “maximum pressure campaign”, Mr Eberstadt argued.
Bill Richardson, a former governor and diplomat who traveled and led negotiations with North Korea, saw three positives and three negatives from the summit. “On the positive side, we are on path to diplomacy rather than military confrontation, we saw a personal connection between the two leaders, and the process started.”
The negatives, he added, were that there is “no meat on the bones, no specifics” and, second, “a very limited discussion of North Korea’s human rights record”. Mr Richardson also called the US compromise in halting military exercises in the Peninsula “unfortunate”, especially that “the move was not consulted with our allies, including South Korea”. The US military also appeared surprised with Trump’s announcement.
Spokeswoman for US military forces in Korea, Jennifer Lovett, said they have received “no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises – to include this fall’s schedule Ulchi Freedom Guardian”.
Mr Richardson recommended assigning US Secretary Mike Pompeo and “not other White House officials” to handle the diplomatic process going forward. National Security Adviser John Bolton, a nuclear non-proliferation hawk who traveled to Singapore with Mr Trump, is also seeking a role in the process.
“The handshake between Trump and Kim was historic, but the summit outcome is mediocre at best,” said Kelsey Davenport, the nonproliferation policy director at the Arms Control Association.
The joint statement is nothing more of a “reiteration of North Korea's past commitments to denuclearise...and it is far too soon to characterize this vague, aspiration pledge as a success or a failure,” she added.
Follow up meetings and a process “that trades concrete actions to reduce and roll back North Korea's nuclear program for security assurances from the United states” will help determine the success of these early efforts, Ms Davenport continued.
China was not present in Singapore, but it was declared another winner of the summit for seeing a halt to US military exercises, while guaranteeing more openness to its close economic partner North Korea.
With the fanfare over, technical follow up meetings between Washington and Pyongyang are next on the agenda. A Trump-Kim summit at the White House is still unlikely but it remains on the cards if major progress is made on denuclearisation and sanctions relief.