Written by Peter J. Li.

The U.S.-North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) relations are arguably the most intractable of America’s foreign relations. It is the toughness of the relationship that may have enticed President Donald Trump to venture on a personal diplomacy with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to get the young leader to denuclearise. As a novice diplomat, Trump believed that he alone could strike a deal with Kim Jong-un. The summit diplomacy that he initiated with the help of South Korean President Moon Jae-in did result in the Singapore summit on June 12 last year, a diplomatic breakthrough no other sitting U.S. Presidents had achieved.

Pyongyang has since stopped missile and nuclear tests. It also dismantled at least one of its nuclear testing sites to respond to Trump’s decision to suspend the year’s U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises. President Trump did not forget to tell the American people particularly his supporters that North Korea’s nuclear threat was history and that Americans could now sleep without the fear of a North Korean nuclear attack.  On various occasions, President Trump claimed that he halted an imminent war with North Korea, a crisis allegedly fermented under President Obama. Not only did he boast about having developed great personal relations with North Korea’s young leader, he also claimed that he succeeded in preventing a war with North Korea, an accomplishment seemingly worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Almost overnight, North Korea had a splendid transformation from an international pariah to a superstar. Elevated also were Kim Jong-un’s standing and confidence.

Trump’s claims, laughable to many of his political critics, touch on serious matters. In the last two years, many of his supporters have chosen to believe whatever the so-called “deal-making” president writes in his daily twitter posts. It is therefore important to take a closer look at his accomplishment claims. After all, foreign relations, particularly relations with North Korea, are no laughing matter.

Trump’s claims demand close scrutiny. His goal of meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore was to strike a substantive deal on denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.  Despite the fanfare and limelight typical of summit meetings, Trump received no specific commitment from Kim. Kim’s agreement to “working towards complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” has a big price tag, i.e. concessions that Washington is not prepared to make.

No substantive progress has been made in follow-up talks either. The meeting one month after the Singapore summit between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kim Yong Choi, North Korea’s chief negotiator, ended with angry verbal outbursts from Pyongyang. The meeting almost derailed the follow-up talks for implementing the agreement reached in Singapore. Pyongyang accused Pompeo of making “one-sided robber-like” demands. North Korea was in fact reminding Pompeo that Trump would, like his predecessors, fail to make meaningful progress without willingness to concede substantially.

The return of the remains of Korean War soldiers was a commendable result. While the return of the remains and North Korea’s suspension of the tests are all important, they were not the primary objectives of the Singapore summit. The significance of North Korea’s suspension of the nuclear and missile tests should not be inflated. The test freeze could mean that these costs tests are no longer needed. Also, the freeze is not necessarily permanent. It can be restarted. Pyongyang’s test freeze was as much a requirement for the lifting of UN sanctions as for maintaining the right atmosphere for reducing tensions with the U.S.

Dismantling the testing site was another symbolic act that shouldn’t be overrated. The site dismantling does not stop or slow North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. As Dan Coats, Trump’s director of national intelligence, stated, “North Korea will seek to retain its [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities.” Seven months after the Singapore summit, the U.S. intelligence community did not believe the U.S. had anything to celebrate yet.

The U.S. intelligence establishment is apparently not on the same page with President Trump on his claims regarding the North Korean summit diplomacy. If the U.S. has nothing to celebrate yet, who are the net beneficiaries of the Singapore summit?

Kim Jong-un seemed to have won the first round of the summit diplomacy.

Trump apparently used this diplomatic adventure to silence his critics and to solidify the support from his political base at home. Yet, the diplomacy has benefited Kim Jong-un more substantially. Almost overnight, North Korea had a splendid transformation from an international pariah to a superstar. Elevated also were Kim Jong-un’s standing and confidence. The Trump-Kim summit was a result desired but never achieved by his father and grandfather. Denying North Korean leaders the fame and reputation they did not deserve was the sole purpose of Trump predecessors’ “failure” to meet their North Korean counterpart. A summit meeting that legitimises the North Korean regime without achieving America’s foreign policy goals is simply not worth the fuel burned by Air Force One.

The summit diplomacy was a windfall for Kim Jong-un. Breakthroughs in missile and nuclear developments, intended partly to increase Kim Jong-un’s credentials, turned out to be a liability. China had to participate in the UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea. The atmosphere for a Kim-Xi summit therefore disappeared. Trump’s overture for a summit meeting with Kim helped remove the obstacle, i.e., international opposition to such a meeting between Xi and Kim, to a summit between the two Communist leaders. The fact that Kim Jong-un had waited six years to meet with Xi had generated much suspicion around declining bilateral relations. In fact, Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-un’s father, did not meet President Jiang Zemin, Xi’s predecessor, until 2000, six years after he took power.

Since 2006, China has participated in all UN sanctions on North Korea. The Trump-Kim Singapore summit had sent a mixed signal to the international coalition against North Korea’s nuclear programs. The slow erosion of the coalition could accelerate. As long as Pyongyang continues the test freeze, Beijing is likely to start lobbying for the lifting or partial lifting of the UN sanctions on North Korea. China has always expressed reservations on the sanctions for fear of regime collapse in North Korea. Against the new situation of Trump-Kim summit diplomacy, China will slowly restore the trade with North Korea to its full capacity.

China has also benefited from the Trump-Kim summit diplomacy. It has been brought back to the centre-stage of Northeast Asian diplomacy. The three summit meetings between President Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un before and after the Trump-Kim summit served to remind the sceptics that China would not allow itself to be side-lined in matters related to the Korean Peninsula.

Importantly, the Trump-Kim summit diplomacy helped rejuvenate the traditional ties between Beijing and Pyongyang. Against the one summit meeting between Trump and Kim in Singapore, President Xi Jinping has held four summit meetings with Kim. The mechanism of consultation at the highest level between the two Communist states has been fully activated. Its activation could have been delayed further if the Trump-Kim summit diplomacy had not been launched. China’s ability to influence Pyongyang’s actions calls for the operation of the consultation mechanism.

International diplomacy is a tough battleground. The U.S.-North Korean relations are even more demanding. Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula has been the goal of U.S. administrations since Clinton. Offering diplomatic recognition of the North Korean regime is unlikely to get Pyongyang to denuclearise. American diplomatic recognition is no guarantee the abandonment of America’s goal of regime change in North Korea. Similarly, Trump’s belief that North Korea, after denuclearisation, will see its economy flourish and foreign investment pouring in, betrays his inability to see North Korea as a rational actor that values regime survival above empty promise of economic prosperity from its arch enemy of not too long ago.

The Hanoi summit is upon us. Will Kim Jong-un agree to the disclosure of his nuclear facilities and nuclear arsenal?  Will he commit to a timetable for denuclearisation? What will Kim Jong-un ask from the U.S. in return? Or, will Trump come to the realisation that what was beyond Obama or Clinton’s reach in U.S.-North Korea relations is also beyond his reach.

The Trump-Kim Singapore summit was criticised as a photo opportunity. Will the Hanoi summit be different?

Dr Peter J. Li is Associate Professor of East Asian Politics at the University of Houston-Downtown. He is also a China Policy Adviser to the Humane Society International. Image Credit: CC by Jane Wittoeck/Flickr. 

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