Cancelling the summit with North Korea is the right decision considering the lack of preparations on the US side coupled with unrealistic expectations about Pyongyang denuclearising.
President Trump’s subsequent statements that the summit may go on after all have inculcated even more instability into a potential summit.
The key question is whether Trump’s decision to abandon the summit is a realisation that the US is unprepared, or whether the cancellation is a tactic in a long strategy to engage Pyongyang.
Other explanations are also plausible. It could be that the Trump administration is coming to the view that North Korea is not interested in denuclearisation, or that North Korea’s idea of denuclearisation substantially deviates from the US’ understanding.
Trump’s sudden cancellation and subsequent comment that a summit may be be possible could even be posturing to maximize his negotiating position ahead of the planned Singapore summit. Then there are the questions about China’s role in shaping Kim’s views about the summit
Whether the summit proceeds or not, the region’s leaders and governments have much to gain or lose. Subsequently, they are positioning themselves to maximise their national interests as Washington-Pyongyang relations become increasingly unstable and unpredictable.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has spent a lot of political capital on the promotion of a Trump-Kim summit. The urgency to ensure that it goes ahead can be seen in the secret meeting between Kim and Moon in the wake of the cancellation letter.
Trump’s decision will compel Moon to deepen his role as communicator between the US and North Korea. Moon has the unenviable job of conveying to two highly sceptical leaders that both sides are sincere about denuclearisation and eventually signing a peace treaty. He also has to convince Kim that this process will include a guarantee of regime security.
This challenge may push Moon to pursue a thawing in peninsular relations on a bilateral basis through the Blueprint for Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation which proposes three beltways to promote economic development linking South Korea, North Korea and China.
Beijing would be amenable to this approach as it would increase regional stability by making it much more difficult for the US to conduct a military strike on a North Korean regime going through a process of trilateral cooperation. It would also pull the Koreas into Beijing’s political and economic orbit.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for his part, will be relieved that Trump is not moving forward with the summit. For Tokyo, North Korea is an existential threat and the lack of preparation by the US suggests the summit would not have included Japan’s national interests. These include denuclearisation but also the dismantling of short- and mid-range missile systems, submarine launch systems and biological and chemical weapons.
Evidence and experience lead Tokyo to believe that denuclearisation and demilitarisation are not part of Pyongyang’s long-term objective. Rather, their assessment is that post-Olympic North Korean diplomacy is an effort to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea to substantially diminish the possibility of a US military strike. Simultaneously, they believe that Pyongyang aims to extort economic aid to achieve the second pillar of Pyongyang’s byungjin ideology, economic growth.
China will take the cancellation as an opportunity to further deepen its relationship with Pyongyang through an informal relaxation of sanctions and pursuing China-centered diplomatic solutions to the nuclear problem.
Beijing views bilateral negotiations between the US and North Korea as highly problematic and will make strenuous efforts to entice Pyongyang through economic assistance and voicing alternative deescalating strategies such as the Double Freeze proposal. Leaders in Zhongnanhai will strongly promote a four-party approach to denuclearisation including both Koreas, China and the US – an approach unlikely to go down well with Japan or Russia.
Lastly, the cancellation is a boon for Pyongyang. It conveys the image that it is not the North which is the obstacle to diplomacy. Rather the US under Trump is the primary problem preventing the establishment of a long-term durable peace on the peninsula.
Pyongyang will try to use this to relax sanctions and promote diplomacy to extract economic aid from stakeholders in return for a gradual denuclearisation or long-term hiatus in nuclear and missile testing. This will be on North Korean terms.
If, after all, the summit does take place, Kim and Trump will need to agree upon a broad framework that they can take back to their domestic and international supporters. Kim will stress regime security, economic aid, a peace treaty and non-aggression pact. He will also need to ensure China’s interests are properly represented in any discussion and eventual long-term agreement.
For Trump, domestic supporters will expect an end to North Korea’s nuclear missiles. At the same time, the US’ partners such as Japan will press the US leader for a cautious, incremental approach to denuclearisation that includes chemical and biological weapons, short and mid-range missile and submarine launch systems.
With so much to balance, a potential meeting is only the start of a generational project that will outlast Trump’s tenure as President and will be challenged by volatile political cycles in the US. This reality casts serious doubt on the probability of denuclearisation and puts the Kim regime in a strong position in any long-term negotiation process.
(This article was first published in Asia and The Pacific Policy Society on the 28th of May, 2018 and is reposted with the expressed permission of Dr. Stephen R. Nagy.)