Why Kim looks like a winner heading into Vietnam

Why Kim looks like a winner heading into Vietnam

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are making final preparations for their second summit on Wednesday and Thursday, with the possibility that historic change is in the air. Yet with significant uncertainty over the outcome of the event in Vietnam, it is Kim rather than Trump who so far appears to have emerged as the bigger winner from the engagement process.  

To date, Kim has made few concrete concessions to the US, with Trump touting last week as evidence of his diplomatic success with Pyongyang the recent absence of missile and nuclear testing. 

At the same time, Trump has called off joint military exercises between the US and South Korea, exchanged effusive letters of praise with Kim, held out the prospect of easing sanctions on Pyongyang if it does “something meaningful” on denuclearization, said he is in no rush to conclude the negotiation process, and already declared that he will meet again with Kim after Vietnam. 

This underlines how much the North Korean leader has already received from Trump in exchange for ambiguous pledges to “denuclearize” in the Singapore agreement. This in a context where there is also reported evidence that Pyongyang is continuing uranium enrichment and has stepped up missile production.  

On a personal level, for instance, Kim has assumed significantly higher political importance on the international stage, from erstwhile allies and previous foes alike. Before and after last year’s summit with Trump, other major powers with a stake in the future of the Korean Peninsula, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, have begun jockeying for position as the region’s military and strategic landscapes are potentially recast in what South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said is the real end of the Cold War, more than 25 years after the Soviet Union’s collapse.  

One of the most spectacular features of this, at least to date, has been the remarkable pivot of key powers toward greater engagement with Pyongyang. All key parties sense significant new political and economic opportunities, and potentially risks, opening up under future sanctions relief.  

 If Kim ultimately reneges on any key pledges in the US president’s eyes, the political pressure will be on Trump again to ratchet up his position against Pyongyang, despite the warm words of 2018 and early 2019.

Andrew Hammond

Here, it is no coincidence that Xi invited Kim for multiple trips to Beijing in 2018 and 2019, the latter’s first foreign tours since he assumed power in 2010. Moreover, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has met Kim in Pyongyang, has invited the North Korean leader to meet with President Vladimir Putin.

The contrast between this feting of Kim and the situation in 2017, when the Trump team was debating a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, is striking.

The shifting geopolitical tectonic plates around Korea since the rapprochement has not just positively impacted the North but also the South. For instance, Moon is promoting a “New Northern Policy” which, alongside peace talks with Kim, is a key foreign policy driver under which his administration is seeking to improve its ties with important Eurasian neighbors.

Last year, for instance, Moon made a landmark trip to Russia, the first by a sitting South Korean president since 1999. His visit underlines that at the same time Kim is being courted by Washington, Beijing and Moscow, the three have also been clear to consolidate ties with Seoul.

In this context of change in the region, and with significant expectations surrounding the Trump-Kim Vietnam event this week, what remains unclear is how big the potential risks (as well as opportunities) are.

While Trump appears keen to have sustained strategic dialogue with Kim, especially in advance of his potential 2020 re-election campaign, both these leaders’ personal and political volatility cannot be underestimated. And if Kim ultimately reneges on any key pledges in the US president’s eyes, the political pressure will be on Trump again to ratchet up his position against Pyongyang, despite the warm words of 2018 and early 2019.

In this scenario, Trump would potentially be under domestic political pressure again on this issue, having drawn a political red line as president over Pyongyang having nuclear weapons capable of striking the US homeland. He is well aware that missile tests in 2017 showed that Kim is close to developing a nuclear warhead capable of being fitted onto an intercontinental ballistic missile that can strike the US mainland. 

Taken overall, the Trump-Kim Summit in Vietnam, and wider diplomacy involving Washington, Beijing and Moscow following the summit in Singapore, underlines that geopolitical tectonic plates are moving in the Korean Peninsula. But while historic change could be in the air, significant risks remain if North-South dialogue ultimately proves a mirage, with the warming of relationships potentially going into reverse.

 

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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