Figuring out what might happen next in the US-North Korea relationship is more than unknown. It is almost in the realm of “unknown unknowns.” But the place to start may be with recognizing that US President Donald Trump has got to where he is now, supposedly agreeing to meet with Kim Jong-un, almost by mistake.
The move to détente, if it can be credited with such a noun, was a direct response not of Pyongyang but of South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in to Trump’s threats of war, uttered without bothering to consult with Seoul. It was these threats that propelled Moon, a president already sympathetic to attempting once again to engage the North, to use the Winter Olympics to head off any march towards a war which would be catastrophic for the South, the supposed US ally.
The first was the postponement till after the Olympics of US-South Korea military exercises. The second was a deal with Pyongyang over joint representation at the Olympics.
From Kim Jong-un’s viewpoint, this was ideal from three perspectives. Firstly, his nuclear and missile developments have reached the point where he offers a semi-credible threat to the US as well as to Japan and other neighbors. Secondly, sanctions were hurting more than before and thirdly China and Russia were leaning on him not to wave a red rag to the rutting bull in the White House.
Once Kim offered a meeting, Trump apparently realized that he needed a grand gesture but not a war. Even his most staunch supporters were not gung-ho for combat with “Little Rocket man.” So he is trying the other tack: Present himself as a man of peace trying to resolve one of the two most enduring issues of the past 60 years.
The fact that a meeting on equal terms without any significant concessions on Kim’s part – something that Pyongyang has been demanding for decades – was in fact a humiliation for the US need not concern the Twitterati or most of Trump’s conservative base. Few were aware of the US negotiating stance of the past several decades – refusing such a meeting and attempting to work through its allies – so they could scarcely judge it. As for the State Department, it was not even consulted, Tillerson at the time being too busy telling Africans to beware of Chinese money to be consulted about Mr Kim.
So what next?
The first thing to notice is that any direct dealings, wherever they lead, undercut Chinese influence. The US has, bizarrely, been accommodating to China on other issues such as trade in the hope of persuading Beijing to pressure Kim. The rationale always was debatable given China’s limited influence and limited desire to do more than make the right noises and back some UN sanctions. Of course China would be elated if somehow the US agreed to any deal involving complete de-nuclearization of the peninsula. But none of the other parties truly wants that, whatever they may publicly claim.
It is hard to believe that even a poorly informed Trump can believe that the North will abandon its nuclear weapons and missiles. They have become not just a deterrent to external enemies and “regime change” advocates. They are at the heart of the Kim family’s claim to leadership, and they are an expression of Korean nationalism, admired even by many in the South as a triumph of Korean skills and determination, the accomplishment of native skills in the face of isolation and outside pressure. The cost has, of course, been horrendous but that may be forgotten if détente is in the air.
As for the future, the hostile foreigners just might be Chinese who could see the North turning away to the west, rather than the Americans and Japanese of the present and recent past.
It is possible of course that the meeting will never happen as Trump gets anxious about coming away empty-handed. Yet unspecified preconditions may emerge. Assuming it does happen, can Kim offer Trump any apparent “triumph” even if that conceals the reality that months or years of negotiations will need to follow? If the meeting leads nowhere, will the volatile and frustrated Trump look to military action? China and Russia both appear worried about that possibility – though they be equally worried that Kim has sidelined them.
Trump has certainly changed the game, for now. But this is no Nixon following a carefully devised Kissinger strategy to open to China to undercut the Soviet Union. This is gut feel at work which makes for nervousness and well as hope on the part of those who bear the consequences, most particularly South Koreans.
Kim has little to lose unless he drives Trump to instant war-mongering. Trump must have something of substance to show the folks at home. He must show how he bested the Little Rocket Man to force him to give up the nuclear race and that they are now good friends. Given his dalliance with other dictators such as Duterte in the Philippines and Prayuth in Thailand, it is clear he has little sympathy for the millions of starving and suppressed North Koreans. In theory detente should prove very difficult but given the receptive audience Trump enjoys for his make-believe, it offers some hope for continuing peace on the peninsula.
Less likely, but still possible, is that the volatility of international relations and Trump’s own volatility combine to begin a re-configuration of the balance of power in northeast Asia.