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Trump, Kim Joint Summit Statement Could Restrict U.S. Navy Presence Near Korean Peninsula

The Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Michigan (SSGN-727) arrives in Busan for a regularly scheduled port visit while conducting routine patrols throughout the Western Pacific. US Navy Photo

The ambiguous joint statement issued by President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un following their Singapore summit could leave U.S. Navy ships barred from calling on South Korean ports, operating in regional waters and potentially shifting the regional balance of power, several military and Asian policy experts told USNI News this week.

The joint statement says, “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea), and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

The language is aspirational but doesn’t spell out anything concrete, Sue Mi Terry, senior fellow and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a Tuesday call with reporters.

“I don’t even think there’s an agreed-upon definition,” Terry said. “I’m still seeing ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ [in the statement] versus North Korea unilaterally dismantling their nuclear-weapons program.”

Denuclearization has different definitions for the U.S. and North Korea, analysts say. Understanding the differences between the relatively narrow U.S. definition and the much broader North Korean definition will be vital if a lasting agreement is reached.

“Pyongyang defines denuclearization as global arms control and, as a self-professed member of the nuclear club, it will reduce to zero nuclear weapons when the rest of the world does,” Bruce Klingner, primary North Korea analyst with the Heritage Foundation, told USNI News in a statement.
“This has been a long-standing position well known to Korea watchers but which the White House didn’t understand when Kim Jong Un conveyed in March when he expressed willingness to discuss denuclearization. When a senior North Korean official reiterated it publicly in May, the White House was surprised and interpreted it as a broken promise.”

Also, while South Korea does not have a nuclear program, the North Korean government has long considered denuclearization to include banning nuclear weapons and their delivery systems from even visiting the peninsula, Frank Aum, senior expert on North Korea at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told USNI News on Wednesday.

“We believe this means not just our weapons, but nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, submarines and bombers,” Aum said.

What’s unclear is if under Pyongyang’s idea of denuclearization would tolerate U.S. nuclear-powered ships or submarines even transiting South Korean territorial waters, Aum said. These details would have to be ironed in the future negotiations hinted at in the joint statement.

“I think the U.S., North Korea, China and South Korea would have to come to some sort of agreement,” Aum said.

The wide differences in what denuclearization means have to be ironed out, especially considering the poor track record the U.S. has with past agreements with North Korea, Klinger said.

“Because the U.S. and North Korea have such different interpretations, and given the failure of eight previous agreements with Pyongyang, it shows the necessity of having clearly delineated text and rigorous verification protocols. Both of those components were included in arms control treaties with the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact but in none of the agreements with North Korea,” Klinger said.

Sailors aboard the forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem (DDG 63) salute the aircraft Carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) as the ship enters port in Busan, Republic of Korea. US Navy photo

The U.S. Navy’s standard response to inquiries about whether nuclear weapons are aboard surface ships or submarines is to neither confirm nor deny their presence, Tom Callender, the primary naval analyst with the Heritage Foundation, told USNI News in a statement. But Callender doesn’t think the Navy should change its operations in the region.

In the past, instead of declaring whether Navy ships carried nuclear weapons, the Navy has simply stopped visiting countries with nuclear restrictions. In 1984, when New Zealand adopted anti-nuclear legislation banning nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered vessels from visiting the island nation, the Navy stopped scheduling port visits altogether. More than three decades passed before the Navy again considered sending non-nuclear ships to the South Pacific ally.

“Even if North Korea denuclearizes and a formal peace agreement is signed, the U.S. Navy should still continue to conduct port visits to the Korean peninsula and conduct naval exercises in the surrounding waters [the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan],” Callendar said.
“This would be primarily to message China of U.S. intentions to maintain our forward presence in the area as well as reassure our regional allies. Exercises and U.S. Navy deployments to the Sea of Japan also send a message to Russia with its Pacific Fleet headquarters in Vladivostok.”

A Win for China

A naval soldier of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) views through a pair of binoculars onboard China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning. Xinhua Photo

Already, just talking about curtailing U.S. Navy operations in the region is a win for China, which so far has secured concessions from the U.S. without even directly asking, Abraham Denmark, director of the Wilson Center’s Asia, said during a media conference call.

The whole process “was fairly cost-free for China,” and it started with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s visit to Beijing, Denmark said. It shows China’s “expanding influence … at a time when its power is increasing and the United States’ is decreasing” in Asia and the Pacific.

“It’s a real heartwarming development for Moscow and Beijing, which have wanted to weaken American influence in Asia and globally by having our alliances unravel. And the president of the U.S. seems to be pulling the string to do that. So pretty stunning,” said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said during a media conference call.

The next few weeks will likely provide some clarity as to the military’s future activities in Korea, the analysts said. The U.S. should know pretty quickly, within weeks, whether the North is serious about continuing the denuclearization process, Aum told USNI News. The signal will be if high-level meetings occur between the U.S. and North Korea officials.

As to what the United States received from the summit, the answer is still murky, Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said during a media conference call. Later talks will have to establish mileposts and goal posts to denuclearize North Korea and ensure verification.

But Pyongyang has a history of saying one thing and doing the opposite, Daly said: for example, saying it was ending its nuclear weapons program in the 1990s but meanwhile continuing to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons at underground facilities not visible to satellite inspection or agents’ visits.

Either Trump or Pentagon officials will likely start walking back some of the comments made regarding troop levels, joint exercises, bomber flights and other types of military activities the North Koreans have and Chinese have wanted to be curtailed, Green said.

“As far as the joint statement goes, I guess this was sort of the medium outcome,” Terry, the Korea chair at CSIS, said.
“But it’s not obviously optimal, because we didn’t get… anything concrete out of North Korea.”

USNI News contributor John Grady contributed to this report.

  • Paul Berkebile

    This article is nothing but conjecture. Your experts have done their best to throw cold water on the peace agreement without a single shred of evidence to back up their “sky is falling” attitude.

    • AlphaCheck

      Does denuclearization include aircraft carriers? Seems like we should know what denuclearization means before we sign up to it.

      • ew_3

        Actually you bring up a fun point.

        The USN can’t show off a CVN during Fleet Week in NYC. It’s a “nuclear free zone”.
        We won’t bother to mention there are quite a few training reactors in NYC.
        And that nuclear materials are used all the time at medical facilities in NYC.

        BTW Need to add Cambridge MA is even as stupid, if not more so.
        MIT has training reactors.
        And what do they think is used at Harvard Medical School when they do an MRI.

        • Fred Gould

          Did some research, it is an unwritten rule.

        • John Locke

          You clearly have no understanding of the materials used in MRI machines and those used in nuclear weapons or reactors. Regardless, the ban in NY was enacted in 1984.

          • ew_3

            John, I was a Physics major at school.
            One of my professors was involved in the development of the MRI.
            He also worked with Teller on the H-Bomb.

            I have no idea you would jump to the conclusion on my knowledge and was only referring to the CVN ban in NYC, and the hypocrisy of towns calling themselves “nuclear free” when they are certainly not.

    • Jay

      What “peace agreement”? There’s no peace agreement.

  • ew_3

    Ben you lost me with article.

    Your political leanings are pretty obvious here.

    I enjoy USNI to keep up with what’s going on. And as a source of information and knowledge.

    This article should be on the USNI editorial page.

    • Marc

      So quotes from the Heritage Foundation are now considered Liberal bias. Exactly what Navy did you supposedly serve in?

      • Ser Arthur Dayne

        Fake News.

  • Marcd30319

    When you use weasel words like “may” and “could” in a news article, you are wandering into editorial opinion-making.

  • Alex Andrite

    What do you mean ?

    • Marcd30319

      He has no point — that is what he means.

    • AlphaCheck

      See above. “Does denuclearization include aircraft carriers? Seems like we should know what denuclearization means before we sign up to it.”

      What does denuclearization mean? Does it include economic exclusion zones? Does it just include on land? Does it just include 12nmi into the water? The whole thing is meaningless because of the vague use of language.

  • NsTiG8r

    You need to tone down your rhetoric. He is our Commander-in-Chief and deserves our respect. Go spew your hatred on FB.

    • Duane

      You mean the same kind of respect Trump gave Obama, and GW Bush, and GHW Bush, and even Ronald Reagan when they were Commanders in Chief (Trump in 1987 said Reagan was crazy, go look it up).

      I don’t hate, because that is a blind emotion, of the same blindness exhibited by the Trump cultists who applaud every thing he says and does. I cite facts and logic.

      Traitors to America do not deserve respect. We are a nation of laws and are not a personality cult.

      • Chesapeakeguy

        Duane??? Oh DUANE??? Hillary still lost. It’s long past time to get over it and move on. Ideologues like yourself can whine and sob and have hissy fits forever, but none of that will change history. YOUR candidate lost. We get it that you and some others on here hate the fact that our current President might actually succeed at things that his predecessors, of both parties, failed at. We know you all are rooting against this country. But normal people (that would be those of us not wrapped up within the leftist, ‘progressive’ agenda like yourself and those others I alluded to) pull for the USA, and ALL of its citizens. Why don’t you make it a point to attend an NFL football game this fall and charge the field and take a knee during the Anthem? Maybe you can burn a US flag while you’re at it? I’m sure you’ll feel so much better if you do so.

        Run along now..

        • Marcd30319

          It’s like Linus and his security blankey; Duane just can’t live without his TDS fix.

          • Chesapeakeguy

            LOL..

          • Marcd30319

            Yes, so sad. Needs therapy and a life.

    • muzzleloader

      You need to understand that Duanne is a hard core Trump hater and has been venting his animus ever since Trump was elected. You can’t debate him, and despite what he says that he doesn’t hate, anyone who supports Trump is a cultist/right wing nut case/trumpkin/traitor/Russian troll( all quotes). It’s what he does.

    • John Locke

      To be respected you have to be respectable. It will take decades to remove the filthy residue left by the current POTUS

      • Chesapeakeguy

        LOL. I love how Trump literally lives rent free within your heads. He OWNS you all. Like I said, I love it..

  • Marcd30319

    I also submit that using “ambiguous” in the lead paragraph ventures unambiguously into opinion-making.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    “The ambiguous joint statement…”

    How does any clown get specifics from an intentionally AMBIGUOUS document? “Gee, it might result in little green men being able to freely come and go from North Korean ports and airfields”. Or, :US Navy ships will now not be permitted to sail west of Hawaii unless Lil Kim orders them to. Geezz, wake up and MAN UP!

  • Chesapeakeguy

    Where and how did Trump commit to any such thing? NOTHING has been agreed to except to keep TALKING. We get it that you Democrats are investing heavily on this country failing, and that you all are still so butt-hurt over Trump’s historic win in November 2016, but why not just this ONCE take the President’s own advice and “let’s see what happens?” And what is your source for Netanyahu calling the summit a failure? I cannot find any reference to that. Take your time, I’ll wait..

  • Chesapeakeguy

    Oh wow. Now it’s the ‘Mossad’ with your bunch? I guess they have temporarily replaced the ‘Russians’! Gee, before that came along, all we heard from your side is how ‘racist’ anyone is who dares to view this world differently from you. Maybe that’s progress. I don’t know! I certainly don’t care…

    Are you referring to the ‘classified report’ that a reporter claims to have from isreal’s Foreign Ministry? Netanyahu’s name is not mentioned in it. But, it does say what you want it to, so it’s obviously Gospel to you. I’ll bet you watch MSNBC and read The Daily Kos religiously, eh? LOL..

  • Marcd30319

    Quite honestly, most of the points raised by this so-called article are totally specious. President George H.W. Bush ordered tactical nukes off US warships back in September 1992. Regarding nuclear-powered ships, they operate in international waters, and it is up to the host nation to allow port visits. North Korea does not have veto over this.

    Again, this is a joint statement, not a negotiated treaty, so all of this hand-wringing is really misplaced. However, the fact remains that Kim Jong-un signed that statement in such a public fashion before the entire world. This is a major PR coup for the US. What can also be said is none of the existing sanctions against North Korea have been lifted, and additional sanctions are standing by if there is any nonsense during negotiations.

  • David C

    Ben attended University of Maryland and New York University. I need to read no further!