The much hyped June 12 Singapore Summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, is likely to herald a new epoch in the security architecture of Northeast Asia with far reaching ramifications. Much of the world’s attention will be focused not only on the personal chemistry between Trump and Kim, rather on who is going to extract more concessions in the high stakes poker game.
On April 11, 2018, in a US-North Korea contact meeting arranged at official levels, North Korea presented the five entreaties on Trump-Kim summit talks as a condition for the dissolution of the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile technology. These are: (a) ensuring the US and South Korea not to locate nuclear weapons and its strategic assets within the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula. (b) cessation of the development or operation of nuclear strategic assets during US-South Korea joint military exercise and training (c) to ensure that the US will not attack North Korea pre-emptively using conventional or nuclear weapons. (d) to convert the 1953 Korea Armistice Agreement that was made at the end of Korean War impasse of 1950-53 in to a Peace Treaty on Korean Peninsula. (e) to initiate the process of establishment of official diplomatic ties between North Korea and the United States.
So, it is clear that, from a North Korean perspective, before any semblance of denuclearization is placed on the table, substantial economic sanctions relief, inflow of massive economic aid and investment in liberal measures, a non-aggression pact between the contending parties, have to be in place. These steps may be the initial ones towards a possible grand bargaining as Kim holds the aces as he has lot less to lose in the act of brinkmanship in the one-on-one meeting with leader of the sole super power in the post-Cold War era. From the perspective of the United States, at least from the viewpoints of the hawks in the US Administration such as Vice President Mike Pence, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, North Korea should never be allowed to retain the nuclear weapon capability. This was premised on four factors. (a) a nuclear North Korea with a non-rational actor such as Kim Jong-Un at the helm can deliver a body blow to international security order and extended deterrence that have been maintained and nurtured by the United States for the past several decades since the end of World War II. (b) North Korea’s ambitious nuclear program will also raise questions of legitimacy on the goals and objectives of the nuclear non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and make it obsolete. (c) a nuclear-armed North Korea might embolden elements within Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan to go overtly nuclear thus making the entire Northeast Asian region a trigger point for possible nuclear conflagration.
A lot depends on how Kim Jong-Un will play his cards at the Singapore summit. Will Kim demand from US to stop protecting South Korea and Japan with American nuclear arsenals and nuclear-capable military assets through the nuclear umbrella shield? Will Kim demand a complete withdrawal of US troops from South Korea and to end the US-South Korea military alliance altogether? Weill Kim demand a nuclear-free world before he can concede a nuclear-free Korean peninsula?
While the Trump Administration would ideally prefer a “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization”, a strategic shift of such magnitude seems unlikely. Both sides, United States and North Korea, as part of bargaining chips would like to exploit the window of vulnerability and turn it into windows of opportunity to their respective advantage for maximising the gain in the great power game. The signs of North Korea playing a hard ball diplomacy is self-evident as Kim Jong-Un bolstered the North Korean position with his two recent meetings with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and equally two meetings with South Korean president Moon Jae-in. Even the Singapore summit date of June 12 had to undergo several roller coaster ride, first with the summit talks confirmed on March 8, North Korea cutting off talks on May 15, US backing out of the summit on May 24 and finally, Trump reversing course a day later on May 25 to leave open the possibility of June 12 Singapore summit talk.
Although the foreign policy experts may envision a new beginning, it is more than likely that the summit talks may not be a ‘one-shot denuclearization.’ Rather, a sober view dictates that a ‘step-by-step’ approach be initiated with incremental dismantlement along with simultaneous economic, security and political concessions from the United States and other western powers.