The live images of the historic April 27 summit between the two Koreas mesmerised the world. The audacity of thought in the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean peninsula stunned the international strategic community, particularly in the background of gathering war clouds in the autumn of last year. President Moon Jae-in and Chairman Kim Jong-un spelt out their common vision for the future of the peninsula and Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping were left scrambling to keep their core interests upfront in the future negotiations.
The global attention is now focused on the upcoming Trump-Kim summit on June 12 in Singapore. The events and preparations were proceeding far too smoothly and the first jolt was delivered on May 15 by North Korea’s first vice minister for foreign affairs Kim Kye-gwan. He cautioned, “if the US is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-US summit.” This is obviously part of the negotiating strategy and North Korea will play the game of brinkmanship with its consummate skill.
Mr Kim has repeatedly demonstrated his sense of timing, depth of strategic thinking and ability to control the agenda as well as the pace of North Korea’s negotiations with other parties. His offer to publicly shut the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in the coming weeks had put pressure on Mr Trump to finalise the date of his summit three weeks in advance. Mr Kim has already promised an end to all nuclear and missile tests and released three American prisoners; so what more can be achieved during the Trump-Kim summit?
Mr Trump has a laser like focus on “denuclearisation of North Korea” whereas Mr Kim is likely to negotiate the terms of a “nuclear free Korean peninsula”. The continued presence of 28,500 US troops in South Korea, port calls by nuclear armed US naval ships, scale and frequency of US-South Korea military exercises and the validity of the US’ extended nuclear deterrence over South Korea (and Japan?) would be on the table as bargaining chips in return of a “complete, irreversible and verifiable” denuclearisation of North Korea. This would necessarily entail lengthy and fraught negotiations.
US national security adviser John Bolton made a psychological blunder when he told a TV channel that the 2003 agreement for Libya’s denuclearisation could be a model for the agreement with North Korea. Such a comparison would have triggered all the negative impulses of the paranoid North Korean leadership wedded to regime survival and preservation of the state and governing system of DPRK.
China was feeling left out in this entire process. Chinese analyst have noted that the only role assigned to China in the Panmunjom Declaration is “quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China, with a view to declaring an end to the war, turning the armistice into a peace treaty, and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime”. The Chinese have questioned how China can be excluded from the denuclearisation process on the Korean peninsula. China acted swiftly and foreign minister Wang Yi read the riot act to Mr Kim when he went to Pyongyang on May 2. Mr Kim quickly made amends and met Mr Xi in Dalian, China on May 7 to coordinate its negotiating position with Chinese interests.
South Korean analysts accept that enhancing China’s engagement, as a supporter of the inter-Korean peace process, would be one of the critical missions of the two Koreas. The New York Times has commented that China worries that “North Korea is using China’s growing tension with the United States to reduce its dependence on its long-time benefactor”.
According to a Korea Times analyst, the Chinese priorities in the final outcome of the Korean peace would be first the removal of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and secondly withdrawal of American troops from South Korea. President Moon has not been keen on the continuation of THAAD batteries on South Korean soil and has already agreed with China to freeze deployment of any additional THAAD batteries. On withdrawal of US troops, Mr Trump may be inclined to drastically reduce the number of American soldiers in South Korea, which would be in line with his declared policy of reducing America’s security commitments and expenditure on bases abroad.
The outcome of the forthcoming Trump-Kim summit would hinge on some common understanding of the concept of “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” and the series of steps and the timeline to advance towards that goal.
While the US establishment has called for a “complete, irreversible and verifiable” denuclearisation of North Korea, Mr Trump’s oft-repeated promise to the American people during the presidential campaign and after assuming office has been that North Korea would not be allowed to develop credible capacity to mount a nuclear strike on mainland US territory. While Mr Kim claimed last November that after the series of nuclear and missile tests, North Korea had acquired the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability to attack mainland US, American experts express doubts and assert that North Korea is yet to develop and test the technology for safe re-entry of the nuclear warhead in earth’s atmosphere as well as the required level of miniaturisation. Perhaps this ambiguity gives room for both Mr Trump and Mr Kim to come to some understanding.
In the ensuing negotiations towards a peace treaty and denuclearisation, South Korea is likely to play the role of a mediator between the United States on the one hand and North Korea and China on the other. In any case South Korea was not a signatory to the tripartite July 1953 Armistice and the historic April 27, 2018 Moon-Kim declaration already amounts to a de-facto peace agreement between the two Koreas.
The denuclearisation of North Korea can only be a process with major reciprocal steps by the United States and South Korea. The relevance of the US-South Korea Defence Treaty would also come into question. The main demand from North Korea would be the immediate lifting or substantial easing of the crippling economic sanctions against it which would require UN Security Council approval.
One may expect a roller-coaster ride as the US and North Korea inch towards the June 12 summit. The summit will happen only if Mr Trump wants to go ahead as North Korean red lines have now been drawn.
The writer is a retired ambassador