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Ending 'war games' sends the right message - NZ Herald Editorial

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The success of the Singapore summit depends on the answer to one question. What does North Korea want from the United States in return for abandoning a nuclear defence?

The question was barely asked in public discussion before the summit or in the news conference conducted by President Donald Trump after his meeting with Chairman Kim Jong Un. Yet it is crucial to the eventual success of their historic engagement this week.

Their joint statement after the talks declared Trump was, "committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK" and Kim had "reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula". But those are words that have to be backed by stated actions — "confidence-building steps", diplomats call them — if peace is to be achieved.

However, Trump told the news conference he and Kim had made some undertakings beyond their signed communique, which would have been written before the summit.

According to Trump, the North Korean leader agreed in the meeting to decommission his nuclear weapons almost immediately though destroying them would take somewhat longer. And Trump has agreed the US and it allies will hold no more "war games" on the peninsula, acknowledging that they were "provocative".

Those are genuine confidence-building undertakings on both sides.

It is not clear how the US might verify that North Korea has decommissioned all its weapons. Trump expected that "we'll have a lot of people there", so the all-important verification procedures probably remain to be negotiated by high officials of both sides. In that sense the summit has not achieved as much as a previous deal negotiated by the US and its allies, which North Korea soon broke.

The parties to that deal, which included New Zealand, gave North Korea billions in aid in return for a promise of nuclear disarmament. Its failure proved that money alone cannot finally settle this 65-year stalemate. This time the only economic benefit the regime expects to gain, according to Trump, is the confidence to spend less on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

It probably also stands to gain from a resumption of trade with China whose compliance with international sanctions this time might have been crucial in bringing North Korea to this agreement. China wants better dealings with South Korea and wants more influence in the region.

But with a firm ally in Japan, the US is not running much risk of losing its reach into the Northwest Pacific and it does not need regular military exercises on the Korean Peninsula to ensure South Korea's survival.

Trump's suspension of the exercises is not only a good confidence-building gesture, it is one that can be quickly reversed if North Korea does not keep its side of the bargain. It should be noted, though, that Kim seeks "complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula". The phrase suggests he sees a nuclear element in the US ground forces stationed there.

Reassuring Kim's regime that no country threatens them might take a few more confidence-building actions but this unusual US President has made a good start.

NZ Herald

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