The optimism is palpable despite whiffs of concern. Many who had long been saying that North Korea only needed to be reassured to become a reliable diplomatic partner with willingness to abandon its threats and proceed to denuclearization in stages now feel vindicated. Instead of being some sort of madman, Kim Jong-un proved to be a savvy practitioner of diplomacy. The mood in Moscow, Beijing, and progressive circles is hopeful, but there are at least three caveats. One, the United States, particularly its enigmatic president Donald Trump, cannot be trusted to stick to a script of balanced diplomacy. Another reservation is that the national interests of the countries bordering the Korean Peninsula will not be adequately considered, which suggests distrust not only of Washington but also of Seoul and Pyongyang. Finally, there is the argument that the crisis over North Korea or, as many prefer to say, the Korean Peninsula, is really a symptom of a bigger problem: the absence in Northeast Asia of an inclusive security framework. Thus, the high-level diplomacy in the spring of 2018 is not criticized as such, but its limitations are highlighted with insistence that multilateral talks are obligatory for lasting resolution of the most fundamental causes of the crisis that has lingered since the Korean War.
The North-South summit of April 27, 2018 has few detractors in China, Russia, and progressive circles. Replacing the armistice with a peace regime is welcome, setting a goal that opens the way to a broad security framework. Active cooperation between North and South is admirable and will be conducive to multilateral economic projects and new forms of regional cooperation. Rewarding steps toward denuclearization with generous terms for peaceful coexistence elicits praise as a process conducive to advancing diverse national interests. Yet, should there be a rush to a bilateral or trilateral deal which sidelines other states, nervousness would grow. Preferring a multi-stage, multilateral process—expecting it—is common to China, Russia, and progressives.
The diplomatic track followed so far in 2018, however much a relief from the bellicose talk and posturing of 2017, has come as a shock. Kim Jong-un did not coordinate with Beijing or Moscow, as each had sought, but went directly over their heads to Seoul and Washington. This might bode poorly for coordination ahead, especially given the dearth of information on what Kim may have in mind. Kim decided to take advantage of Trump’s instinctive approach while recognizing that Moon’s overtures and the PyeongChang Winter Olympics offered an ideal pathway to a summit with Trump. When Kim’s strategy succeeded more quickly than even he could have anticipated, he found it expedient to rush a visit to Beijing to build ties with the Chinese leadership. Yet, this could scarcely provide clarity on Kim’s intentions and on the prospects for Sino-DPRK relations. The absence of a meeting with Putin, perhaps until the September Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok to which Kim would likely be invited, hints at Russia’s secondary role in this region.
Distrust of US Diplomacy
There are multiple reasons for suspicion of US diplomacy toward North Korea: 1) the sustained narrative in China, Russia, and progressive circles that Washington has been wholly or largely to blame for the failure to reach a breakthrough with Pyongyang over 25 years; 2) the words Trump has used in defiance of conventional statesmanship to characterize Kim Jong-un; 3) the fear that Trump and his hawkish leadership is setting up the summit with Kim Jong-un for failure that would justify increased pressure and even military action; and 4) the lack of standard contacts in preparation for such a momentous summit. Unlike previous diplomacy with North Korea there has been a relative absence of multilateral consultations, flying in the face of the Six-Party Talks and its legacy useful for imposition of tighter sanctions. Adding to this are the troubled state of Sino-US and Russo-US relations in 2018 and the idiosyncratic nature of Trump’s presidency, and few seeing a clear path to resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis. Perhaps, the most basic reason for the doubts heard is that Kim Jong-un is expected, after early conciliatory moves, to drive a hard bargain, and Trump is not considered to be a skilled negotiator in international talks of this sort.
Chinese, Russians, and many progressives are inclined to see US aims as steeped in hegemony in a manner incompatible with what Kim Jong-un and apparently Moon Jae-in finds acceptable. To cut a deal accepting of a process of Korean unification that would weaken the US standing in the peninsula is not what Washington would be ready to do. Assuming no capitulation by Kim Jong-un, long-time skeptics of US intentions have difficulty seeing a path to a lasting agreement. Yet, Kim Jong-un has surprised them already. His determination to prevent a sinocentric region may be a wild card. This arouses anxiety that Trump may discover a path forward against all odds. In one scenario, Trump turns out to prioritize geopolitics using North Korea as a force to balance against China, although Chinese leverage on both the North and the South makes that doubtful.
Insistence on One’s Own National Interests
In calling for the denuclearization of North Korea, Chinese and Russians have been careful to qualify this goal by insisting that the North could not agree unless its geopolitical interests are met, which just happen to coincide with the national interests of their own country. To the extent that Kim Jong-un demanded the removal of US forces from the Korean Peninsula, the breakup of the US-ROK alliance, and the establishment of a regional security framework to replace the US- centered security system, Moscow and Beijing would support these objectives as part of security needed to reassure the North Koreans. If concern grows that Kim is flexible on these goals, then it remains to more openly specify one’s own national interests and to pursue them separately. Yet, the assumption remains that Kim will define the North’s interests in a compatible manner. Those eager to reinforce Kim’s assumed inclinations have carrots and sticks available to be utilized.
The talks in 2018 may cling for a time to promises of denuclearization in return for financial and other benefits coupled with concrete steps toward North-South reconciliation and coexistence, but the need for China to agree to a peace regime to replace the armistice it signed 65 years ago gives it one form of leverage over the security arrangements. The necessity to keep Beijing and Moscow in step in relaxing sanctions in accord with progress on other dimensions of any deal is also reason to acknowledge their leverage. Should Kim Jong-un swing sharply toward Seoul and Washington, he would require extra support to compensate for the leverage used against him. If, as most expect, he probes for some middle ground, then the major powers would find no way to avoid confronting their strategic differences. Japan, of course, would be on the US side except in its greater reservations about a strong Korean state emerging. While Washington would be apt to view that state as a bulwark against China, Tokyo would be wary of a negative outlook on Japan.
Searching for a Regional Framework
In the mid-2010s, China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea at the expense of ASEAN and the US 7th Fleet’s security role showed how far China was prepared to go to alter the status quo. In the case of Russia, its aggression was concentrated in other regions, but its support of China and effort to forge a special relationship with North Korea as part of Putin’s “turn to the East” revealed determination to be a player in East Asia. The Korean Peninsula is on Russia’s doorstep. It is the paragon of imperial China’s tribute system, symbolizing the virtues of sinocentrism, and of China’s Cold War defense of its borderlands, symbolizing the sacrifices made to resist what is seen as predatory US imperialism or hegemonism. Loss of North Korea as a buffer, a partner in past sacrifices, and the spearhead of anti-Americanism would raise a red flag in both Moscow and Beijing. The stakes are high, and neither would be satisfied with being left as bystanders as the future of the peninsula is negotiated. Wariness casts a shadow on optimism that, at last, the diplomatic window has reopened, and Washington will not be able to have the upper hand.
Should Kim Jong-un surprise many by favoring Seoul and Washington without paying due regard to the regional framework sought in Beijing or Moscow—there are differences between them but not on the need to contain Washington and weaken the US-ROK alliance—efforts to undermine Kim’s diplomacy could take many forms. These have not been articulated because it seemed so improbable that such a situation would arise. Great power maneuvering over the Korean Peninsula can be expected to intensify, either through diplomacy on which Kim Jong-un capitalizes or through pressure and subterfuge that seeks to undercut the diplomacy or transform it. An opportunity has arisen, and it may result in a showdown in which states take sides. Kim Jong-un is the driver in the diplomacy and will have a large say in any great power struggle
Trump is trying to make the North Korean issue all about himself. China, Russia, and various progressives seek to make it mostly about geopolitics on a regional scale. Moon Jae-in with possible support from Kim Jong-un prefers to make it about Koreans deciding their destiny by themselves for the most part. Only by breaking away from the Trump narrative can we grasp what others are contemplating and make a realistic appraisal of how talks are likely to proceed.