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Tim Cullen
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Will the high hopes of the Singapore summit be fulfilled?

Tim Cullen MBE is an Associate Fellow at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, where he directs the Oxford Programme on Negotiation. He is also Chairman of TCA Ltd, a specialised international advisory firm that provides Western companies with guidance for better negotiation outcomes in China and other East Asian countries. He was formerly with the World Bank for 21 years, serving as Chief Spokesman for most of the 1990’s.


The fact that Trump and Kim met, had some photo ops, said positive things, and issued an encouraging communique is all good news that cannot simply be dismissed as an ego trip for the two leaders. But we need to ask if it will be the basis for North Korea ending its isolation and pursuing collaborative policies that will make the world a safer place.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)’s track record in reneging on agreements and Donald Trump’s unpredictability and fickleness towards world leaders he has embraced, suggest that we may be in for disappointment. But both the US and North Korea need this to work and, after an inevitably rocky road ahead, it probably will.

Good negotiators need to be clear about their objectives, but they also need to recognise that they won’t get everything they want. Over the months (and even years) ahead, every concession and gain for each side should bring both sides closer to meeting as many of their objectives as possible, with inevitable compromises along the way, to reach a mutually acceptable outcome. If both sides recognise that this is a step-by-step process of reciprocal behaviour, we can be optimistic.

While both sides have committed to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsular, this will inevitably not happen overnight. A handful of nuclear weapons is enough to constitute a deterrent, on which Kim can capitalise in the short-term to secure many of his long-term objectives. But DPRK also needs to send positive signals by speedily re-joining the International Atomic Energy Agency and signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

A treaty between North and South to move from a truce to a genuine end to the Korean War, would be mutually beneficial, but reunification could raise false hopes and could be an obstacle to progress in other areas. The financial cost of reunification of the Koreas would be massively greater than the German experience in the 1990’s. Better to seek normalisation of relations and family reunions across the DMZ as the first step.

The wheels of political negotiations can be oiled by large of amounts of economic assistance. The first de facto injection of economic support should be the lifting of sanctions pari passu with concessions from DPRK on a range of tension-reducing measures.

Kim’s speeches in recent years have focused on twin policy objectives of rapid acceleration of the nuclear weapons programme, while pressing ahead with economic modernisation. He has talked about improving standards of living, adding that “people should no longer be hungry.” With the arguable success of the first objective, Kim will be looking to achieve the second.

It will take a long time, but it would be worth accelerating the admission of DPRK to the IMF, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, as well as securing bilateral commitments from individual donor countries to a massive aid initiative to address food shortages and modernise agriculture and industry.

The role of China has already been and will continue to be of critical importance. The positive overtures from Kim earlier this year were followed by a visit to China where the Korean leader was filmed dutifully taking notes as President Xi Jinping spoke. It is a fair assumption that Kim has been receiving guidance from his mentor over the past few months and that China’s role in the aftermath of the Singapore will be significant.

President Trump’s alienation of his Western allies (and of many other countries) has been a golden opportunity to “Make China Great Again,” as President Xi has sought to position himself as a global statesman in contrast to the isolationism of his US counterpart.

Probably the greatest threat to a positive aftermath to the Singapore summit is Trump’s volatility. His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has been key in bringing the two leaders together. He needs to try to limit the tweets from the Commander-in-Chief and curb the loose talk of National Security Advisor John Bolton. Pompeo should be urging his boss to make up with his G7 allies and also engage constructively with China. The evident influence China has over DPRK gives it leverage in its trade dispute with the US. It will surely play that card, and the US needs to respond positively.

There will be inevitable setbacks, but if all recognise that successful negotiations emanate from many reciprocal gains and concessions based on the different values that each side attaches to each issue, the world really can become a safer place as a result of what started in Singapore.


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