North Korea-US summit has high stakes for many players

North Korea-US summit has high stakes for many players

On June 12 US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are scheduled to hold a summit in Singapore. The smart money is on the meeting taking place on schedule, despite the recent North Korean rhetoric suggesting it could be off. This will be a historic meeting of truly epic proportions, as it will be the first time that a US president sits down with a North Korean leader. At stake is nothing less than the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The run-up to proposing this meeting was dramatic, as most things are with the US president. Trump and Kim called each other names for about a year. The latter busied himself carrying out nuclear tests and sending missiles in the direction of the Sea of Japan, while the former instated economic sanctions and threatened the nuclear obliteration of North Korea. Northeast Asian countries beyond the two Koreas were deeply concerned. China did not want to see a failed state on its borders and Japan feared for its security as did Taiwan.

What happened then was astounding. Since March the North Korean leader has paid two visits to China for discussions. There was also the historic summit between the North Korean president and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in. Then on March 8 the White House announced that the US president was to meet the North Korean leader.

In between a lot happened: there was the historic Kim-Moon summit, which resulted in the “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula,” and there were two visits of the US secretary of state to North Korea. Both sides made all the right noises when it came to denuclearization. However, their statements lacked specificity. China said it was willing to pour billions of dollars into the economic development of North Korea, if it denuclearized. The US also promised to be generous. On his part, Kim blew up parts of a nuclear test site, which brought him rich praise from the US president.     

But we would not be dealing with Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un if there was not at least one curve ball along the way. Kim used the joint US-South Korean two-week military exercise, which started earlier last week, to call off the summit. In that context it was certainly not helpful that US National Security Adviser John Bolton had likened the US North Korea talks to Libya.

Kim certainly remembers what had happened to the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, after he handed over his nuclear arsenal to the Americans. This must have brought on his worst fears. Libya’s subsequent descent into a failed state must also have rung the alarm bells. Trump went out of his way to dissuade the world from the Libya comparison. The US still prepares for the summit and South Korea has offered to mediate. Moon will meet Trump this coming week.

High-stakes politics tends to bring with it high drama. We should look beyond that, at what we can realistically expect from the Trump-Kim summit.

Cornelia Meyer

High-stakes politics tends to bring with it high drama. We should look beyond that, at what we can realistically expect from the Trump-Kim summit.

For one, it is unclear if and how the two definitions of denuclearization match. The US and the Republic of Korea (ROK) will have more stringent criteria than the North. Former US secretary of defence, William Perry, made a good point at last week’s Asian Leadership Summit in Seoul, which was organised by the Korean media conglomerate Chosun-Ilbo: He argued that during the six-party talks the situation was much different. The negotiations were held between 2003 and 2007 and involved senior civil servants from North and South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the US. Whereas North Korea did not yet possess nuclear weapons, which meant it only had to give up the ability to develop them, it now needs to give up an actual nuclear arsenal. That will doubtlessly result in a very different negotiation position. True, the North is economically on its knees, but we are dealing with a country and a leader who take great pride in military prowess.  

The six-party talks were structurally onto something that Trump would do well to remember. The stakeholders go beyond North and South Korea, China and the US: Russia, Japan and Taiwan are also affected.

The military presence of the US in South Korea is what enabled the ROK to become the world’s 12th largest economy and a member of the G20. The world’s third largest economy, Japan, also has a huge stake in the game. It needs political and economic stability in Northeast Asia. Ever since the end of the Second World War, Japan has been one of the United States’ staunchest and most reliable allies. In other words, stability in the region depends in large parts on a continued US military presence in Korea.

North Korea and China have a very different view on this subject, as may Russia. China’s extraordinary economic rise has brought about a more aggressive military stance, especially in the South China Sea. This worries both Japan and Taiwan a lot. President Trump must not bargain away the US military presence on the Peninsula under any circumstances, because his allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan, depend on it for their national security, which underpins their economic success.

  • Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macroeconomist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources
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