Juan Tovar Ruiz is professor of International Relations at the University of Burgos
The 12th of June of 2018 the first meeting between the President of the United States of America and the leader of North Korea took place. This event has clearly drawn everybody’s attention all over the world, specially, taking into consideration the ups and downs of the relationship between both nations during the last months.
In order to understand the North Korean issue it is necessary to go back to the Cold War and the Korean War of 1950, produced as a consequence of the invasion of South Korea by the Northern army, which translated into thousands of deaths and the armistice that recognized the border between both Koreas in the parallel 38.
During the post-Cold War period, the various attempts by U.S. presidents to deal with the North Korean problem suffered from a clear lack of results. In the case of the Clinton Administration, negotiations to try to get North Korea to give up a nuclear program, which its regime considered vital to the survival of its political system, led to a waiver agreement in exchange for relief from sanctions imposed by the U.S. Administration and the granting of economic aid. However, this commitment was not respected and very soon the United States had to face the consequences of the development of North Korea's nuclear program.
Due to its compromise with the reconstruction of the State of Iraq and with less intelligence instruments to face this challenge, if compared to the actions taken to deal with the Iranian nuclear program, the George W. Bush Administration kept the sanctions policy destined at the financing of the nuclear program. The results obtained both in this respect and in altering the behavior of the regime and the taunting to the regional allies of the United States were limited, especially given China's fears that the fall of the regime would produce a reunification of Korea, its alliance with the United States and a potential flow of refugees into Chinese territory, as expressed in the State Department cables leaked by Wikileaks.
Badly placed in this respect because of its commitment to state-building in Iraq and with fewer intelligence instruments to be able to meet this challenge, compared with the actions taken against Iran's nuclear program, the George W. Bush administration continued with the policy of sanctions aimed at trying to curb this program. The results obtained both in this respect and in altering the behavior of the regime and the provocations to the regional allies of the United States were limited, especially in view of China's fears that the fall of the regime would lead to the reunification of Korea as an ally of the United States and a potential flow of refugees into Chinese territory, as expressed in the State Department cables leaked by Wikileaks. The Obama Administration's conciliatory approach, focused on the challenges posed by an increasingly assertive China in its strategy of 'Turning to the Pacific', rather than on the question of Korea, also failed to meet that objective.
The progressive development of North Korea's nuclear and ballistic program, for the first time with the possibility of attacking US mainland territory, gave a 180-degree turn to the Korean problem, elevating the nature of the security challenge and even obscuring - for the time being - the problem posed by an ascending and increasingly assertive China. The Trump Administration placed North Korea's nuclear plan at the core center of its concerns. Increasing mutual hostility led to an exchange of hostile qualifiers and an increase of tensions that reached its zenith in the United Nations speech of September 19, 2017, when President Trump, in addition to calling the North Korean leader a "rocket man", threatened to ‘totally destroy’ that state.
The adoption of even more forceful sanctions and China's growing collaboration seemed to lead to a new situation of growing détente, compliance between the two leaders and even historic visits such as that of the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to Pyongyang. In light of the negotiating will of the President of South Korea, materialized during the Winter Olympic Games, President Trump accepted the possibility of holding a meeting with the North Korean leader, who was subject to different ups and downs, but whose materialization finally took place.
The summit, as expected, resulted in a document full of vagueness that revolves around four key elements, including progressive advance towards the denuclearization of the peninsula, the identification and repatriation of those killed in the conflict and progress towards peace and the consolidation of bilateral relations. This document does not resolve key elements such as the conceptual differences surrounding the idea of "denuclearization", nor does it make the guarantees for the fulfilment of the objectives explicit.
There are also a number of aspects indicating that this document should be taken with some caution or skepticism. These include the unfulfillment of previous agreements signed by North Korea, the guarantee that the nuclear program aims at the survival of the North Korean regime in the face of the distrust aroused by U.S. action in scenarios such as Libya, the abandonment of the nuclear agreement with Iran by the Trump Administration, the unpredictability of the two main protagonists of the meeting and the pressure from critical decision-makers of the agreement, such as the National Security Adviser John Bolton. All of this makes for an extremely fragile relationship that is very vulnerable to any possible eventuality.
In any case, a relevant consideration, and even considered possibility for the future by President Trump at the press conference following the summit, such as the total or partial withdrawal of US troops from the Korean peninsula, could be a relevant factor in reaching a definitive solution to the challenge.
Concluding, the meeting translated into an initial agreement, a first declaration of intent to move forward on a program of negotiations that will be long and complex and whose outcomes are still highly uncertain.