The Korean-US Muddle
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 01 Jun , 2018

In an announcement that was somewhat on expected lines, President Donald Trump cancelled the planned summit with the North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, scheduled for June 12. In a letter directly addressed to Kim, released early on May 24, the US president while thanking his North Korean counterpart for his time and patience, referred to a ‘hostile’ statement made by North Korean Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ms Choe Son Hui, in the state-run media outlet KCNA a day earlier. The President’s letter, however, ended with an invitation for North Korea to reach out if the country changes its mind about its position on the USA, thus signalling a willingness to make a mutually beneficial deal if the summit proceeds as planned!

There is a need to understand how the summit came to be planned, after almost a year of furious missile launches and nuclear tests, followed by cacophonic rhetoric from North Korea, USA and its allies. Trump’s original decision to hold a summit with Kim Jong-un was announced on March 08, 2018; this would have been a first, for no sitting-president has ever had a face-to-face meeting with a North Korean supreme leader. It was also a display of Trump’s character with a typical spur-of-the-moment announcement, with little or no preparation. In contrast, the Nixon-Mao meeting in 1972 in Beijing came after years of hectic parleys and diplomacy by Kissinger and others. Even in the recent past weeks, the statements emanating from the White House, indicated that Trump had not spent any significant time in getting to understand, in depth, the complexities of North Korea’s nuclear challenge and how to nullify it; rather, Trump seemed to have focussed on the media coverage of the forthcoming visit, and the perceived prestige associated with it (read Nobel Prize).

For President Trump, the now cancelled meeting was just to get a promise of unilateral disarmament from North Korea; the complexities of US alliances in the region, the non-proliferation regime, what would constitute de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and role of China in the area, seemed to have been either lost on him or taken for granted.

On the other hand, for Kim, it appeared to be much more about his nation’s acceptability in the world as an equal to USA, through lengthy negotiations, and his comprehension of complete de-nuclearisation; de-nuclearisation, a term, which always can have two different meanings for USA and North Korea. To that end, it was expected that Kim would want to extract the maximum in terms of economic and political concessions, rather than make any firm commitments for reduction in nuclear capabilities.

Kim’s preparations for the summit announced by Trump, started with a surprise visit to China; he, along with his wife, made a visit to China during the week 26-31 March, the formal acceptance of which was confirmed by China only after he had departed! The trip came ahead of the talks in April between Kim and the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, and the now-cancelled talks with Trump. In the past, Xi Jin-ping might have let the US drive the process as long as China was consulted, however, with relations as they are with USA, and with Xi having secured a ‘life-presidency’ for himself, he seemed to have decided that it was essential for China to shape the process early and discuss directly with Kim; by being the first leader in Asia, to meet Kim, Xi has decisively shown as to who is the boss in North-East Asia.

The North-South Summit

The date April 27 has been etched in Korean history; not since the 1950s, had a North Korean leader set foot on South Korean soil, and on April 27, Kim met Moon, his South Korean counterpart, for a historic meeting where they pledged to declare a formal end to the Korean War. Previous such summits in 2000 and 2007, both held in Pyongyang, had also ended with similar displays of affection and similar pledges, but the agreements had come to naught.

Why is this summit then considered different? The two leaders met in the Truce Village of Panmunjom, having seemingly shed their apprehensions and appeared to be eager to join hands to usher in a new era of hope, peace, and prosperity in the Korean peninsula. While none of the agreed-upon Panmunjom Declaration points are major concessions, these could have been a prelude to the now cancelled Kim-Trump summit; further telephonic conversations also could have reassured USA of Kim’s intentions, thus facilitating better US-North Korea relations.

China, North Korea’s main ally, welcomed the meeting and expressed willingness to play a proactive role in promoting political solutions. China wants to keep itself involved, lest it be sidelined by the thaw in North-South relations and Trump’s willingness to interact with Kim. Russia, too, expressed its readiness to assist in cooperation between the two nations and also aid North Korea in infrastructure development. Japan, which has been in North Korea’s sights for long as an US ally, and has had many a missile fly over its territory, called for Kim to initiate concrete steps to fulfil the stated promises.

The two Koreas announced that they would work with China and USA to officially declare an end to the Korean War, technically still continuing since 1953; they broached the topic of reunification of the two nations also. While this may be optimistic in the near term, given Kim’s autocratic rule and China’s concern of a capitalist country at it southern doorstep, the fact that this has been thought of, is in itself an immense step, just as the summit between Kim and Moon.

Preparations for Kim-Trump Summit

Kim met again, with the Chinese President in early May, their second meeting in two months. Kim once again pledged his commitment to denuclearise the peninsula, as a positive message to USA, ahead of the now-cancelled Kim-Trump meeting. While neither of the two leaders referred to their meeting as a preparation for Kim’s forthcoming meeting with Trump, the Chinese leader expressed support to North Korea for its commitment towards denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Kim reportedly has stated that he does not need nuclear weapons, if a ‘relevant party’ drops its ‘hostile policy and security threats’ against North Korea.

Although Kim did not mention anything about his meeting on April 27, with Moon, the geo-political changes taking place around the Korean peninsula, which were drawing the attention of the world, were discussed. The recent North-South meet, the forthcoming Kim-Trump meet had attracted world focus on the region; notwithstanding the cancellation/postponement of the Kim-Trump summit, the peninsula continues to be under the spotlight. It is also speculated that North Korea wants relief from the crippling sanctions, which are supported by China, the major ally of North Korea.

In USA, the announcement by Trump to meet Kim, had taken everyone by surprise, more so since the announcement came at a time of major changes in the State Department. Not only did Trump have a new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, but also a new National Security Advisor, John Bolton. Immediately after the proclamation by Trump, Pompeo made two short, secret visits to Pyongyang, to meet Kim and lay the ground rules for the meeting with Trump. John Bolton, a foreign policy hawk, had once called the talks with North Korea as ‘a waste of time’ and had advocated a pre-emptive strike against it. This belligerent statement by him, and another that USA was planning the Libyan model for its talks with North Korea, could probably be the reason that could have led to Kim having second thoughts about denuclearisation, though it was Trump who beat him to announcing the cancellation.

Moon and Kim, however, seem to be sure in their minds that the process of peace between their two nations should not be derailed. Their first meeting in April had decided on continuous dialogue, which was demonstrated through an impromptu meeting on 26 May, immediately after Trump’s cancellation, wherein they then called for the North Korea-US summit to be held; on the same date of the message from Trump, 25 May, Kim demonstrated his intent towards denuclearisation by the destruction of the nuclear-testing site in the presence of international media.

Trump has, in the meanwhile, made another announcement to reconsider talking his with Kim; his team of officials are now in constant touch with their counterparts in North Korea; he has negated the Libyan model to be followed in North Korea, providing some relief to Kim. After weeks of political posturing by both Trump and Kim, this is a welcome development, though with little time left for the talks on June12, reconciliation on issues concerning denuclearisation is not easy.

There is also the probability that Moon may participate in the talks in Singapore on June 12, making it a three-way summit. His presence, would, however, depend on the outcome of the preparatory talks between the officials, where USA wants North Korea to ship out its nuclear arsenal and missiles within six months. The three-way summit, if held, would therefore, be a security guarantee, through Moon, to Kim for his denuclearisation.

What Role for India

India has always considered North Korea’s nuclear ambitions as a threat to its own security, holding both China and Pakistan responsible for the nuclear proliferation in North Korea; it has also always asked for an international investigation into the connections between the three nations. While North Korea is aware of India’s concerns and of its links with Pakistan, it is also aware that the present Indian government has been maintaining close ties with South Korea and Japan, both rivals of North Korea.

It is evident from the developments of the last few weeks that the interpretations of and expectations from the called-off summit are different for USA and North Korea. For Trump, denuclearisation is the starting point, whereas Kim seeks peer status with his nuclear capabilities. For the countries of the region, Japan, South Korea and China, defusing the tension and ensuring that the proposed dialogue takes off, is of importance.

Can India, then, though not directly involved, serve as a neutral facilitator to assist in establishing realistic expectations that would be acceptable to both the parties. While India has supported the sanctions against North Korea and has also participated in the Vancouver Dialogue on North Korea on Jan 16, 2018, it has also continued to maintain diplomatic relations. Peace and stability in East Asia is of importance to India, especially given the close ties with Japan that have developed over the last few years. It also understands North Korea’s desire for acceptance as a nuclear-enabled nation, having been through similar situation after Pokhran. India, hence, could play a useful, behind-the scenes role under such circumstances.

What Next

The statement by President Trump in March 2018 about a meeting with Kim Jong-un, took the world by surprise. During his election campaign, Trump had shown his readiness to talk with Kim, but after being elected, and the spate of nuclear and missile tests by North Korea, Trump was not so accommodative; rather, Trump had been threatening with a response of ‘fire and fury’. Immediately after the ‘Winter Olympics Diplomacy’, North Korea seemingly changed its stance against its southern neighbour and USA.

Why this sudden change of heart? Why has Kim suddenly gone back on his insistence on testing missiles and nuclear weapons?

The North Korean nuclear capability is the crux of Kim’s domestic propaganda, and the army’s prestige. While his strategy, as has been seen since 2011 when he assumed power, appears to be to ‘fill hearts with fear and bellies with food’, may have succeeded in generating fear amongst his people, the military generals and his close relations, but food is scarce and the latest sanctions, supported even by China, have begun to bite.

Kim seems, therefore, to have swopped priorities, from acquiring nuclear arms to developing the economy, and for that he needs the summits. It is unclear how will it all end, for it could be a scheme to gain time and have some of the severe sanctions waived off. These summits – official and impromptu – have, however, shown him in the world community, as one who is willing to change; this strategy could help North Korea gain recognition and some sympathy in the international community, assist Kim to get some economic aid and stall Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ threat.

Another strategic move, which may sound fanciful and hence, unlikely, yet a remote option, could be Kim wanting to switch camps from China to USA! His two recent visits to China apart, such a move on the part of Kim, may just get Trump, in a give-and-take gesture, to recognize North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes, thus granting it legality! Analysts, the world over, shrug off such a move, but in international politics, anything can happen, especially if it involves two unpredictable leaders!

Telephone lines are buzzing between America and North Korea; senior diplomats of the two nations are earning air-miles, all as a part of the preparations for the now-on-now-off summit between Trump and Kim. North Korea is acceptable to the summit as planned, provided USA is ‘sincere’ about improving relations with it; but in USA, it has always been Kim’s sincerity that has been in doubt! Nevertheless, as Gary Samore, a former adviser to Barack Obama, thinks that even if the talks go nowhere, it is better to talk than to prepare for war.

June 12, 2018, is less than a fortnight away. The world awaits the summit.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Dhiraj Kukreja

former Air Officer Commanding in Chief of Training Command.

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