Both the United States and North Korea were quick to declare victory following the historic Trump-Kim summit in Singapore held on June 12, 2018. The next day, President Donald Trump set to twitter proclaiming, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” Meanwhile, pundits rushed to the diplomatic scoreboard, announcing the winners and losers. Comparing the event to the Nixon shock, they were quick to declare whether Kim Jong-un drew closer to the United States or to China, and who came out on top in the new North Korea-China-US triangle. The hyped and partisan reporting on the summit masked the real setback in charting a concrete path towards denuclearization in the joint statement signed by President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un. Not surprisingly, the diplomatic process immediately stalled. Beijing reacted adroitly to the whirlwind and has since maneuvered itself to a more secure footing amidst the unstable regional geopolitics. However, the newfound and re-energized inter-Korean initiative has proven to be the real impetus for change on Peninsula security.
Leading up to the meeting, media coverage was focused on Trump’s mercurial personality and idiosyncratic style. Indeed, Trump dispensed with many of the diplomatic protocols and conventions historically associated with such summits. He agreed to the meeting on the spot in front of South Korean envoys in March 2018, sent then-CIA director Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang, and feigned cancellation in May. Nonetheless, the outcome of the summit was anything but revolutionary. The Trump-Kim joint statement followed the North Korean denuclearization roadmap laid out during the Clinton era. In and of itself, the document even backslid on previous attempts at disarmament.
Starting with the first North Korean nuclear crisis in the early 1990s, a diplomatic rubric has been in place whereby the North would give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees, political recognition, and economic assistance from the United States and its allies. The 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was the first implementation of the formula. In it, the United States offered security reassurance and promised no nuclear threat to the DPRK, two light water reactors for energy generation – in addition to immediate delivery of heavy oil and electricity – and the promise of diplomatic normalization. The DPRK in turn committed to a complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID). Under President George W. Bush, the Six-Party Joint Statement signed in 2005 tweaked the Clinton blueprint, outlining a multilateral, reciprocal, and step-by-step process. The quid pro quo between North Korea and other partners became murky: the goal was a nuclear free Korean Peninsula where the North reserved the right to nuclear energy generation.
The objective of the Trump-Kim summit, “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” is similar to that of the 2005 Six-Party statement. The promise of “security guarantees,” “new U.S.-DPRK” relations,” and “lasting and stable peace regime” on the peninsula were devoid of any details. Economic reward to the North was to be expected, but was not mentioned in the statement. Trump offered a cessation of the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises at the press conference immediately following the Singapore summit. Notably there was no reference to CVID, which the United States has long sought. In substance, the Trump-Kim statement turned out to accord with China’s “dual suspension” or free-for-free deal where the DPRK would suspend nuclear and missile testing in exchange for the U.S. suspension of military exercises in South Korea. The language was taken nearly verbatim from the inter-Korean Panmunjom declaration issued by the North and South Korean leaders in April 2018 and is eerily similar to the announcements of North Korean state media. In terms of clarity regarding the denuclearization goal and specificity of the grand bargain, the 2018 Trump-Kim statement falls far short of the 1994 Framework.
From the start, the Trump administration pursued a policy of maximum pressure on North Korea. Through his twitter account, Trump ridiculed the North Korean leader as a “little rocket man” and threatened “fire and fury” of war. Unlike his predecessors, however, he apparently never believed the nuclear issue was an unsolvable security dilemma. So, when South Korea conveyed Kim’s proposal for a summit, he was ready to act.
Beijing went along with the tough UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea. This was in part a demonstration of the goodwill generated through the Mar-a-Lago meeting between Xi and Trump, and of the fear of Trump’s economic retaliation. When the Trump-Kim summit was announced in March, Beijing reacted quickly. In the intervening months before the summit, Kim Jong-un held three meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping in China. Notably, Kim flew on a conspicuously marked “Air China” airplane to attend the Singapore meeting.
For many, bringing Kim under its wing was a big win for China. Beijing managed to preempt speculated attempts by the two Koreas and the United States to sign a peace treaty bringing the Korean War to an official close and replacing the current armistice agreement. The Trump-Kim “free-for-freeze” deal was remarkably identical to China’s dual suspension policy.
To the extent that the summit has eased tensions on the Peninsula and facilitated North Korea’s limited reform and opening, it represents a net gain for China. Empowering Kim’s control at home, the episode also fortified the North-South division, which is to Beijing’s liking. Renewing ties with Kim, Beijing has secured a footing in managing its interest in Korean security. But the long term impact on China’s interests generated by the latest bout of diplomacy is far more complicated and uncertain. A North Korea open to market reforms and “new relations” with the United States also risks undermining China’s leverage over Peninsular affairs. The specter of another Vietnam on its northern border is hardly reassuring.
The story as relayed by Dennis Rodman, the former NBA star who has frequently visited North Korea, was rather revealing. On his visit there in 2014, Rodman promised to stage a basketball game in Pyongyang by former NBA players as a birthday gift for Kim. After the game, Kim said, “Dennis, you know what, this is the first time someone has ever kept their word to me and my country.”
The Real Changes
Behind traditional great power politics, some momentous changes have provided real impetus for new diplomatic engagement in inter-Korean relations and denuclearization, the most important being the May 2017 election in South Korea of the Democratic Party’s Moon Jae-in. Immediately after the election he vowed that his country “must sit in the driver’s seat and lead Korean Peninsula-related issues.” The PyeongChang Olympic Games in February 2018 presented a perfect opportunity for him to kick-start the inter-Korean reconciliation. Kim Jong-un reciprocated Moon’s good will, sending his younger sister Kim Yo Jong to lead the national delegation to attend the game. Two months later, Moon and Kim would hold their first summit at Panmunjom, where the two signed a joint declaration pledging to conclude a peace treaty and a commitment to denuclearization on the peninsula.
On policy towards the North, Moon continues former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moon-hyun’s “sunshine policy” advocating engagement with Pyongyang. His government no longer insists on denuclearization as a precondition for inter-Korean reconciliation. Rather, it pursues a parallel policy of peace and denuclearization. Unlike his conservative colleagues, he also puts aside the agenda of reunification, focusing instead on cementing ties with the North.
Kim Jong-un has successfully consolidated his power at home. Starting in 2013, he adopted a “parallel advance” or “byongjin” policy simultaneously pursuing economic development and nuclear weapons. Six nuclear tests later, he determined that the DPRK had completed the task of becoming a nuclear state. On the economic front, the regime has recently introduced limited market measures similar to those in China in the early 1980s. According to some accounts, the government-sanctioned market sector now employs 1.1 million people. Other gray area activities, black market, and even smuggling have thrived. At least 40 percent of North Korea’s population is now engaged in some form of private enterprise. At the third plenary session of the Seventh Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee in April 2018, Kim officially announced a shift from parallel advance to an exclusive focus on economic development.
In Kim, Moon has found a willing partner for inter-Korean reconciliation and control over Peninsular affairs. Determined to pave his own path of Korean autonomy and perhaps a dream of Korean “neutrality,” President Moon held a second summit with Kim on a three-day visit to the DPRK in September. With the signing of the Pyongyang Declaration and a series of bilateral agreements, the visit once again breathed new life to the process of denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The diplomatic pageantry in Singapore might not have offered a new solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis, but the meeting could represent a real fresh start. The key stakeholders owe it to themselves to try and harness their converging priorities into a concrete action plan that moves the security, political, and economic conditions in tandem with progress on denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. The inter-Korean initiative has galvanized the diplomatic process, but the question is whether the two Koreas can persuade the United States and China to go along with their vision of Northeast Asian security
Yong Deng is Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. He was recently a Visiting Fellow at the Nobel Institute in Norway and Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. His publications include China’s Struggle for Status: The Realignment of International Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2008). The views expressed here are solely his own.