The success of the Singapore summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will depend on whether the two sides can agree on the meaning of denuclearization, Sheena Greitens, co-director of the Institute for Korean Studies at the University of Missouri, said Monday.
Trump’s goal for the summit is for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, Greitens wrote in an email response to questions. The goal for Kim is to win acceptance of his definition of denuclearization, which is for all states with nuclear weapons to disarm.
“Unless that happens, I don't see any indication that North Korea is prepared to denuclearize unilaterally, or even really discuss the possibility,” Greitens wrote. “That's a pretty big gap to bridge, and I don't know how successful the preparatory talks have been in addressing that gap, given the time pressure and the historical negotiating patterns of the two countries.”
Greitens, an assistant professor of political science at MU since 2014 and recognized expert on Korea, is the wife of former Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned June 1 amid growing scandals. She did not address her husband’s troubles but did share extensively her thoughts on the historic meeting.
Sheena Greitens took a gracious tone in a message sent by Twitter the day of her husband’s resignation.
“It has been an honor & privilege to serve as First Lady of my adopted state,” Greitens wrote.
The Institute for Korean Studies was created in 2017 and builds on the long-term ties between the university and South Korea, which has the largest international MU alumni group. President Harry Truman, who led the U.S. for most of the 1950-1953 Korean War, urged the creation of a scholarship for Korean students in the 1950s.
A graduate of Stanford University who was a Marshall Scholar at Oxford and earned a doctorate in government from Harvard, Greitens is the author of the 2016 book “Dictators and their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence.” During the 2017-18 school year, Greitens was on research leave at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies to work on a book on the global resettlement of North Korean refugees and defectors.
The summit in Singapore is the biggest development in U.S.-Korean relations since the armistice ended a three-year war on the peninsula in 1953. Trump and Kim, who is formally head of the Workers’ Party and Supreme Commander of the People’s Liberation Army, were scheduled to meet for the first time at 8 p.m. Monday, which is 9 a.m. Tuesday in Singapore.
The meeting can be called a success by both sides even without a formal promise from North Korea to denuclearize, Greitens wrote.
The opening between the United States and China in the 1970s provides some lessons for the current talks, although the two situations are not exactly analogous, Greitens wrote. The Singapore summit is being prepared “on a very compressed time frame” with massive publicity at each step, while President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 was the result of long-term, secret talks.
Nixon’s visit was the starting point for normalized relations with China, not the culmination of the process, she wrote.
“With the U.S. and North Korea, my expectation is that this will be a symbolic moment, and could create some kind of opening — but it's an opening to begin some hard work, and a very complicated, technical, often adversarial process, not an end point,” she wrote.
The summit was abrupt change in direction for both the U.S. and North Korea, which had spent much of the past year in open hostility over continuing nuclear weapons and missile tests. As North Korea perfected a hydrogen bomb and as it continued tests of missiles capable of striking the United States, the U.S. and the international community continually increased pressure through sanctions.
The State Department put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism and Trump expanded sanctions to punish companies doing any business with North Korea.
Kim can claim the summit is a success because it enhances his domestic prestige, Greitens wrote.
“Based on how North Korea typically portrays meetings with foreign leaders to its own people, Kim Jong Un is likely using the summit and international politics to create a certain domestic political position and image of North Korea — as a state that has achieved both nuclear weapons status and international legitimacy,” she wrote.
If Trump wants to offer sanctions relief as a carrot for denuclearization, it will be up to Congress to go along, Greitens wrote. The North Korea Sanctions Policy Enhancement Act, passed in 2016 and signed by President Barack Obama, addresses both human rights and nuclear weapons development, she noted.
Trump hasn’t signaled whether human rights abuses in North Korea will be discussed in Singapore, but he has made symbolic gestures to show his concern, Greitens noted, by highlighting a North Korean defector in the State of the Union address and meeting with a group of defectors and refugees afterward, she wrote.
“If Congress wants to require progress on both human rights and the nuclear issue in order to make concessions from the U.S. side, they have the statutory authority to do so, and I think it's likely that if the administration doesn't put the issue forward soon, Congress will,” Greitens wrote.
The talks in Singapore have high stakes for the main U.S. allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, who will not be represented. It will be up to Trump to protect their interests, Greitens wrote. Kim will try to exploit any differences he can create between the allies, she wrote.
“The U.S. needs to be working hard to ensure that that doesn't happen,” Greitens wrote. “I would hope that Japan, South Korea, and other security partners throughout Asia are being kept in the loop and that there are serious discussions going on about their interests and concerns, to make sure that these alliances remain solid.”