While much ink has already been spilled on the U.S.-North Korea summit of last week, it bears taking a closer look. First, let’s look at what is in the agreement between the U.S. and North Korea:
- A commitment to new relations between the U.S. and DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea) because the people of the two countries desire peace and prosperity;
- Joint efforts to build a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula;
- A commitment by DPRK to work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; and
- A pledge from both countries to recover POW/MIA remains from the Korean War and return those already identified.
The main objections are focused on what is not in the signed agreement. It lacks detail on how North Korea will denuclearize and prove they are not developing further weapons. The agreement gives no indication of initial steps or a mutually agreed-upon strategy.
The other objection is that President Trump “gave too much” without getting anything in return. This is largely a response to the president’s press conference statement that the U.S. will stop joint military exercises with South Korea. Many policymakers assumed this will also mean drawing down the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
But the summit is a positive step, moving us away from the brink of military confrontation. International negotiations require patience, time, and behind-the-scenes relationship-building. It was never reasonable to expect complete denuclearization in one meeting. This summit was the start of a long process.
While there aren’t many details in the signed document, this agreement allows for flexibility in subsequent negotiations, which is critical. It would be dangerous to set a narrow path to success without first building trust. Years of frozen relations cannot be thawed in three hours. At this point, the leaders are still learning to read each other and test if the other party is to be trusted.
From the beginning of their diplomatic engagement with South Korea and the U.S., the DPRK has been insisting on security assurances. North Korea has halted missile and nuclear testing, released American detainees, and destroyed its nuclear test site. President Trump’s decision to halt the U.S. military exercises is an appropriate reciprocal security guarantee, a trust-building gesture.
The decision to recover and return U.S. servicemember remains is a substantial commitment that is largely overlooked in the political analysis. Not only will this bring closure to thousands of families, it allows for U.S. and North Korean military engagement on a humanitarian issue. This helps lower tensions and provides a channel for communication between our two countries.
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has long advocated for people-to-people engagement between the U.S. and DPRK with the hope that it would plant the seeds for peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The engagement between our leaders has been a politically unorthodox, bumpy ride. We need to ensure that there is follow through on the commitments of the summit and that subsequent negotiations seek the peaceful disarmament of all parties involved. But we should welcome this critical step away from brinkmanship. It is only through face-to-face encounters that we begin to build bridges of empathy and understanding with our adversaries.