The opinions expressed by authors in this commentary do not necessarily represent the views of the China Institute or the University of Alberta.
This week’s summit between North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump has returned the last major Cold War standoff to the centre of world attention. Kim and Trump looked affable: they shook hands, strolled through the summit’s hotel grounds, and even inspected Trump’s presidential limousine, ‘The Beast.’ Trump has since declared the summit a success for his “maximum pressure” approach to the North, tweeting that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
Not surprisingly, the summit has divided global opinion. Three broad views have emerged: one optimistically sees the summit as a step forward; another pessimist one sees it as diplomatic disaster; and a skeptical view sees the region’s broader security problems as constraining any summit outcome. Each view holds some truth, but the issues emphasized by skeptics suggest our expectations about North Korean summitry should be circumspect.
Optimists see the joint statement signed by both leaders as proof positive of Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach. By getting tough on North Korea, Trump halted the regime’s dangerous nuclear ambitions and walked the world back from the "brink of war." The military exercise suspension creates a “freeze for freeze” precedent that will lower tensions and reduce the risk of direct military confrontation. And by approaching Kim as potential partner rather than adversary, optimists argue, Trump was able to reverse the course of a relationship that has grown increasingly toxic since the current nuclear crisis began in 2003. Even if the summit doesn’t directly lead to denuclearization, then, it was a step in the right direction—in Trumpian taxonomy, a good, though not great, deal.
Others argue the summit was a poorly thought-out diplomatic move emblematic of Trump’s untutored style. These pessimists see Trump’s summit attendance itself as a concession. Conventional wisdom says the United States has an inherent advantage in negotiating bilaterally with a state much smaller and weaker like North Korea. But Pyongyang has requested high-level bilateral meetings with the United States for decades. In Singapore, North Korea insisted the iconography of the summit—the flags display and seating arrangements, for example—show North Korea and the United States as equals. By meeting under these conditions, pessimists argue, Kim Jong-un has boosted his international prestige and domestic legitimacy, showing that a nuclear-enabled North Korea can sit eye-to-eye world’s only superpower. The summit thus played perfectly into North Korea’s twin official ideologies of juche (roughly, ‘self-reliance’) and songun (‘military-first’), which curiously mix national victimhood with international intransigence. As Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang write in the New York Times, after Singapore “we are left with the reality that North Korea was just recognized as a de facto nuclear weapons power”—and Kim has shown it can therefore command the world’s attention.
When Kim was able to extract other meaningful concessions—the suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea, and possible sanctions repeals—a diplomatic mistake became strategic disaster. These concession may alienate U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, giving both China and North Korea more room to maneuver in the region. Meanwhile, Kim has committed only to the general goal of “denuclearizing the Korean peninsula,” a wording that shows up in many statements made by the North. To pessimists, then, Kim got a lot out of the summit—prestige, security concessions, and possible economic relief—while Trump and the international community got very little.
According to a third, skeptical view, a thicket of regional security dilemmas and irreconcilable strategic interests will constrain denuclearization efforts. Here, things get complicated. Because the United States has little leverage over North Korea, it needs to work with regional partners—particularly China and South Korea—to apply effective pressure on Pyongyang. The Six-Party Talks, a multilateral forum conducted between 2003 and 2008, was designed to do just that. But the talks exposed fissures between the participants. While the participants agreed on North Korea should stop proliferating, however, they had different priorities on the peninsula and disagreed on how best to pressure Pyongyang. The United States and Japan pursued CVID (‘complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement’), while China, Russia, and South Korea preferred a phased, tit-for-tat solution. Without especially China’s cooperation, the international community had limited ability to broker a regional solution or put pressure on North Korea.
All three views contain some truth. The optimistic view appeals to cases where personality overcame adversity. The opening of China, the end of the Cold War, and the negotiation of NAFTA, for example, all relied on the relevant leaders’ empathetic, personal amenability with one another. Kim Jong-un has more international exposure than his father or grandfather, and may genuinely want to open North Korea to the outside world. An American President who is a real-estate mogul and shares some affability with Kim may be the right President to coax him along, or start the process. Stranger things have happened.
Even if Kim’s efforts to cooperate are genuine (a big ‘if’), however, it is unclear he can or would completely denuclearize. Here, the pessimists may be right. North Korea has long played a one-step-back, two-steps-forward game. The hard reality is that despite all international efforts, in 1994 Pyongyang had zero nuclear devices and now may have as many sixty. The regime often blames its programme on the insecurity caused by dishonest and aggressive outsiders, particularly the United States. If the United States solves this insecurity, this logic goes, it can also solve the crisis.
But the nuclear programme may be too important to Kim’s domestic legitimacy for him to bargain it away except under the direst of circumstances. And few security guarantees are better than a working nuclear deterrent—especially for a regime once lumped together, by a U.S. President no less, with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muamar Gadhafi’s Libya. Written security assurances from the United States can be revised later. Only a strong nuclear deterrent, and perhaps second-strike capability, can provide the Kim dynasty something close to an ultimate guarantee.
Finally, the Korean issue is intractably grafted to the region’s politics. Here, skeptics raise important concerns. Of special importance is China, North Korea’s only ally. Pyongyang leans on Beijing for material and political support, and Beijing has more influence in Pyongyang than any other foreign power. (Kim Jong-un relied on Chinese planes and airspace security to make the Pyongyang-Singapore voyage, for example.).
But Beijing’s strategic interests on the Korean peninsula differ from the Washington’s, and put hard limits on its willingness to pressure Pyongyang. A North Korea collapse would produce a geopolitical and humanitarian disaster on China’s northeast frontier. A Korean peninsula unified on the South’s terms would increase the U.S. security umbrella and shrink China’s sphere of influence. Beijing thus has a strong incentive to preserve the divided Korea status quo—a China-sized problem for any strategy that prioritizes denuclearization over North Korean stability. Future meetings between U.S. and North Korean leaders, no matter how flashy (or surreal) the optics, are unlikely to clear away the seventy-year antagonism without attending to these complex regional issues.
Christopher David LaRoche is a Doctoral Fellow at the China Institute.