RIPS’ Eye, July 17, 2018
China’s Shadow Across US–North Korea Talks
The Trump-Kim Summit, held in Singapore on June 12, 2018, was an impressive political show to demonstrate the two leaders’ strong desire for what they termed denuclearization. It certainly was a historic event, considering that such a meeting was unthinkable only a few months ago. Nonetheless, their joint communiqué, which was released after the meeting, was very short and referred to neither a process nor a timetable for denuclearization. The communiqué even failed to say whether Kim had agreed to Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID). Instead, it merely stated that by “reaffirming the April 27, 2018, Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” This was disappointing to those who had expected to see something like a blueprint for denuclearization. Questioned on this point at the press conference after the summit, President Trump replied that there had been no time for it.
Different Views of the Process of Denuclearization
The summit was badly prepared in that the major points of disagreement were not resolved before the meeting. Reportedly, the advance teams had faced considerable disagreement on the implementation of denuclearization, with the US side insisting that concrete steps be included in the joint communiqué, and the North Korean side being so violently opposed to this that they almost abandoned the summit altogether.
One of the main issues of contention was the process of denuclearization: the Americans demanded CVID, and the North Koreans pressed for “stage-by-stage dismantlement.” When Chairman Kim Jong Un visited China in March and May 2018, President Xi Jinping apparently encouraged Kim to demand dismantlement by degrees, along with a corresponding lifting of economic sanctions. Not surprisingly, Trump was not pleased with Xi’s interference.
Another point of contention, one that has yet to become apparent, is that what the United States refers to as the “denuclearization of North Korea,” North Korea (and China and South Korea as well) calls the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” This seemingly insignificant difference actually is quite serious. The US position is to confine the denuclearization to the geographical territory of North Korea, whereas the North Korean position is to extend it to South Korea. Moreover, Pyongyang is likely to insist on participating in inspections of “suspicious” American military facilities and weapons. The United States will understandably reject this proposal, fearing the loss of military secrets to North Korea and China.
Suspension of US–ROK Military Drills Affecting Regional Security
In addition, at the two leaders’ press conference in Singapore, President Trump stated that as long as the bilateral negotiations continued, the United States would halt the US–ROK military exercises. This was a surprise to many in the United States, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the Pentagon, as an unnecessary concession to North Korea. It was also a surprise to South Korea and Japan, two important allies in Northeast Asia that would have expected to be consulted in advance.
Besides being intended to induce Kim Jong Un to begin denuclearizing, Trump’s decision to suspend military drills also served as a threat: The United States would resume the exercises if North Korea failed to proceed toward denuclearization.
Nonetheless, if the US–ROK drills are not held for a long period, the alliance may begin to lose its importance, and some in South Korea may begin to call for the withdrawal of American forces and, particularly, the THAAD missiles. Indeed, some in South Korea may demand that the 1953 armistice agreement be replaced by a peace treaty. In April, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Chairman Kim Jong Un agreed at Panmunjom on a peace treaty encompassing the two Koreas and the United States and perhaps China. (China maintains that a treaty that did not include China would be invalid, as it was a party to the 1953 armistice agreement and thus has a legitimate place in the framework of a peace treaty.)
If the United States does withdraw its forces from South Korea, to what country would Seoul turn for its security? China would be a prime candidate as a security umbrella for South Korea, as evidenced in the former South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s meetings with President Xi Jinping from 2013 to early 2016. Such an outcome could eventually set the Japanese–US alliance against China and the two Koreas across the Sea of Japan. Because the Sino-US conflict will only worsen with North Korea’s denuclearization, Japan should reaffirm its alliance with the United States to offset the negative impact of the US–Chinese rivalry.
Canceling the US–ROK military exercises in exchange for North Korea’s denuclearization was reportedly President Xi Jinping’s idea, although other sources refer to President Vladimir Putin. Xi suggested to Kim in Dalian in early May. China also provided a jumbo plane, a large cargo plane, and fighter jet escorts to accompany Kim and his entourage to Singapore. Clearly China’s influence over North Korea is increasing and affecting North Korea’s position in the emerging relations between the United States and North Korea.
To this, Russia’s influence over the Korean peninsula will add yet another complication. On June 14, President Vladimir Putin invited Kim Jong Un to Russia, stating that he would “make all necessary efforts to establish ties, including economic cooperation.” Then on June 22, Putin invited President Moon Jae-in of South Korea to Moscow, and they discussed, among other things, the construction of a railway system from Vladivostok down to Pusan through the eastern side of North Korea. Putin also invited both Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in to the annual economic forum to be held in Vladivostok in September, to which Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has confirmed his attendance as well.
China’s and Russia’s new involvement in the Korean peninsula will muddy interstate relations in Northeast Asia, a development to which Japan should consider the following so that its own security will not be adversely affected.
First, Prime Minister Abe should try to persuade Trump to consult more closely with Tokyo and Seoul than he has in the past and to maintain the United States’ stable and strong security umbrella over the southern half of the peninsula. Not holding the military exercises may weaken the US–South Korean alliance, thereby rendering the United States’ political influence less effective. Also, a weaker US–South Korean alliance may endanger the trilateral partnership of the United States, Japan, and South Korea.
Second, Abe should ensure that the United States and North Korea resolve the difference in meaning between the “denuclearization of North Korea” and the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” at an early stage of their negotiations.
Third, Abe should be cautious about the implications of North Korea’s proposals, such as a peace treaty among the United States, South Korea, and North Korea, as well as a nonaggression treaty among the three. These proposals are included in the Panmunjom Declaration between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un and imply that the United States would terminate its security treaty with South Korea, which in turn may deprive the United States of its leadership position in Northeast Asia.
We can only hope that North Korea will take sincere and trustworthy steps toward denuclearization, enabling Japan and the United States to lift their sanctions by stages and to work with North Korea to build a peaceful region.