Op-Ed: The US-North Korean Summit: The Winners and Losers So Far

From left, the images of President Trump, South Korean president Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appear on a public TV screen at the Seoul Railway Station in South Korea. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
From left, the images of President Trump, South Korean president Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appear on a public TV screen at the Seoul Railway Station in South Korea. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

Editor's Note: The original op-ed was written before the recent threats from North Korea to pull out of the summit with President Trump over U.S.-South Korean military drills. The following passage is an addendum that puts the threats in perspective.

Early in the morning of May 16, Seoul time, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea's official news agency, announced that the North Korean government had abruptly canceled a planned meeting with a delegation of South Korean government officials that had been planned for later that day.

The meeting was to be held in the demilitarized zone and was intended to discuss setting up future meetings to explore ways of reducing military tensions along the border between the two Koreas.

KCNA attributed the cancellation to Kim Jong-un's concerns that the current U.S.-South Korean military exercises might be a dress rehearsal for an invasion of the North. According to KCNA, Kim also expressed reservations about whether to proceed with the planned historic summit between himself and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Given that for Kim, a meeting with a sitting American president has enormous diplomatic value, it is unlikely that the North Korean leader would cancel the planned summit. What's more likely is that North Korea is attempting to drive a wedge between a more accommodative Seoul and a more inflexible Washington in the hope of securing concessions from the U.S.

To date, the Trump White House has insisted that there would not be any easing of the U.N.-sponsored economic sanctions or the provision of any financial assistance until Pyongyang has completed its denuclearization.

Abruptly canceling planned meetings or threatening to boycott them is a tactic that Pyongyang has used before as a way of extracting concessions from the U.S. and its allies in return for its continued participation in diplomatic negotiations. It's highly unlikely that the Trump administration will play along with that gambit.

Original Op-Ed:

The United States and North Korea are continuing to move forward with plans for a historic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. On May 11, the White House announced that the meeting would take place in Singapore on June 12.

Previous proposed locations have included Ulan Bator, Mongolia and Panmunjom, in the demilitarized zone (DMZ, along the North Korean-South Korean border. Both Russia and China had also proposed hosting the summit.

The White House originally confirmed on March 8, 2018, that Trump had agreed to meet with Kim Jong-un. This would be the first meeting of a sitting U.S. president with a North Korean leader.

Prior to the meeting, a summit took place between Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, and Kim Jong-un. The Korean summit meeting occurred on April 27, 2018, on the South Korean side of the DMZ.

It was the first time that a North Korean leader had visited the South since the Korean War. Since then, exchanges between high-level delegations of government officials from North and South Korea have continued.

The Trump-Kim Summit will also be preceded by a round of meetings between the U.S. and its key allies in the region, South Korea and Japan. Presumably, North Korea would also be meeting with its allies, principally China and possibly Russia, to shore up support for its position.

Throughout this process, the Trump administration has insisted that "all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain," while at the same time expressing optimism that, "both sides want to negotiate a deal … we have a really good shot at it being successful."

Considering that only a few months ago, the U.S. was augmenting military forces in East Asia, that Trump was dismissing Kim as "rocket man" and threatening to rain down "fire and fury" on North Korea, the dramatic shift from imminent war to diplomacy is nothing short of stunning.

On May 9, the White House announced that North Korea had released three American prisoners, all three of Korean descent, and that they were returning to the United States. U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson even went so far as to suggest that Trump should be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize if he succeeded in defusing the Korean nuclear crisis.

All the optimism notwithstanding, however, while the immediate likelihood of an imminent outbreak of war between the U.S. and North Korea has diminished substantially, North Korea has not agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and the North Korean crisis has not yet been resolved. Still, even without a final resolution, it is already clear which winners and losers are emerging.

The Winners

Kim Jong-un and North Korea

First and foremost, among the winners is Kim Jong-un. He has, for the moment, averted the possibility of an attack by the United States. We may never know just how serious the Trump administration was about a military strike against North Korea's nuclear facilities. Clearly, however, the possibility of a U.S. military response was a consideration that Pyongyang had to realistically weigh.

More importantly, it was a possibility that Beijing also had to consider in determining its policy toward North Korea. The prospect of a war on the Korean Peninsula and the likelihood that it would produce millions of refugees trying to cross over into China, not to mention the fact that it might have resulted in the collapse of the North Korean regime, were factors that weighed heavily on China.

Equally important to Beijing was the fact that a collapse of the North Korean government might have led to a unified Korea Peninsula under the control of South Korea and the prospect of U.S. military forces stationed near the Chinese border.

All these factors played a role in shaping Beijing's willingness to support and enforce the economic sanctions that the U.N. Security Council had authorized against North Korea.

Secondly, Kim has successfully created a détente with South Korea, fostered the prospect of significant economic aid and investment for North Korea from Seoul and, in the process, potentially created complications in the relationship between South Korea and the United States.

To date, Washington and Seoul have appeared to be in accord on how to proceed with negotiations with Pyongyang on the denuclearization of North Korea's military.

If the Trump-Kim summit fails to achieve meaningful progress, however, and if the U.S. once again threatens a military response, then Seoul's desire to improve relations with Pyongyang will put it at odds with Washington.

Kim has also improved his international standing by announcing that he is prepared to permanently shut down North Korea's nuclear test site at Punggye-ri and invite foreign observers and international media representatives to observe the decommissioning. The shutdown process will likely entail the destruction of the remaining tunnel complexes in Mantap Mountain.

According to Chinese media reports, the last North Korea nuclear test on September 3, 2017, resulted in a partial collapse of Mantap Mountain and rendered the site inoperable for further nuclear tests. If so, then the announcement is largely symbolic.

North Korea is shutting down a test site that is no longer usable anyway. Regardless of this action, however, nothing precludes North Korea from creating another nuclear test site elsewhere in the future.

This is not the first time Pyongyang has announced it was prepared to give up its nuclear weapons program. It did the same thing in 1994 and again in 2005, only to quickly backtrack.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the Kim regime has succeeded in a long-held objective of having direct talks with the United States and, in particular, between a member of the Kim family and the president of the U.S.

What Kim has not been able to get so far, from either Washington or Beijing, are any assurances that the economic sanctions against North Korea would be eased in response to the actions he has announced to defuse the crisis over his nuclear weapons program.

Moon Jae-in and South Korea

South Korean President Moon Jae-in ran on a platform of fostering better relations with North Korea. Earlier in the year, it looked like Seoul would be in an impossible position of either supporting a U.S. military attack against the North, at the risk of sustaining considerable loss of property and lives in the South, or creating a serious rift between itself and a key ally whose continued role in South Korea was critical in guaranteeing the nation's security.

Instead, Seoul's widely dismissed Olympic overture found a ready response from Pyongyang and rapidly bore fruit.

A majority of South Koreans distrust North Korea and its intentions, but Moon is given credit for, at least temporarily, defusing a potential military crisis and the danger of a general war on the Korean Peninsula.

Donald Trump and the United States

The Trump administration has been quick to point out that its abandonment of the policy of "strategic patience" that characterized the Obama and previous administrations' foreign policy toward North Korea and its threats to rain down "fire and fury" on North Korea are what has induced Pyongyang to come to the negotiating table.

The White House can rightly claim credit for securing Chinese support for a stricter sanctions regime against North Korea. It's unclear, however, to what extent China's willingness to support broader sanctions against Pyongyang was the result of concerns of a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula or part of a larger quid pro quo over U.S.-China economic relations.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration's ability to bring North Korea to the negotiating table is seen as a foreign policy success for the White House, even though North Korea claims that the success of its nuclear program is what has allowed it to bring the U.S. to the negotiating table.

If the summit between Trump and Kim leads to an agreement on staging talks to negotiate a peace treaty to formally end the Korean conflict, then the Trump administration can claim credit for a major step forward to successfully bringing the Korean War to a formal end, more than 60 years after the Korean Armistice was negotiated.

Should that happen, then the U.K.'s Johnson may well be right in suggesting it might make Trump a serious contender for a Nobel Peace Prize. No doubt, that is an outcome that would leave his critics aghast.

Of course, the question of the North Korean nuclear program has yet to be resolved. The prospect of formal peace talks and the promise by North Korea to halt further testing and shut down its atomic weapons site are important forward steps in defusing the crisis, but they leave unresolved the larger question of what will happen to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and its missile arsenal.

China

China is not quite a winner or a loser. On the one hand, Pyongyang has moved to strengthen its ties with Beijing and will push to have Chinese participation in any broader talks on the future of the Korean Peninsula.

After initially being sidelined as the growing detente between the two Koreas blossomed and Pyongyang and Washington agreed to a summit, China appears to have regained its front row seat to any future negotiations.

For China, a role in the outcome of any negotiations concerning the two Koreas, and in particular on what happens to North Korea's nuclear program, gives it valuable leverage on the other issues that it has with the U.S., especially in the area of trade.

Moreover, it would be a diplomatic embarrassment for Beijing if the future of the Korean peninsula was to be decided without any formal role by China.

Additionally, from Washington's standpoint, securing Beijing's continued participation in the economic sanctions against North Korea is critical to ensuring those sanctions maintain the pressure on Pyongyang. Moreover, it behooves the U.S. to give China some skin in the game and ensure that Beijing has a diplomatic stake in securing an acceptable outcome.

On the other hand, an increase in South Korean influence and investment in North Korea may ultimately work to China's disadvantage and may make a Korean reunification more plausible, even if such an eventuality is still far off into the future. A settled North Korea would also deprive Beijing of some significant leverage vis-à-vis the United States.

What China would like most of all is a continuation of the former status quo with a communist government, dependent on China, firmly in charge in Pyongyang and without the risks that its nuclear ambitions might precipitate a war in the Korean Peninsula. Unfortunately, from Beijing's point of view, a return to the previous status quo is the least likely outcome.

The Losers

Russia

The Kremlin is an obvious loser. As the military crisis over North Korea's nuclear program heated up, Russia, while continuing to announce that it supported the U.N. sanctions, also took steps to bolster its relations with Pyongyang.

North Korea shares an 11-mile terrestrial border and a 12-nautical-mile maritime border with Russia. Rail and road links are poorly developed, however. There is only a single rail line that connects the two countries via the Friendship Bridge over the Tumen River, which forms the border between the two countries.

In May 2017, Russia inaugurated a ferry service between the Russian port of Vladivostok and the North Korean city of Rajin. In December 2017, there were unconfirmed news reports that, on at least three occasions, Russian ships had transferred fuel oil onto North Korea ships while in international waters, in violation of the U.N. sanctions.

As the crisis developed over the course of the spring of 2017, into the early months of 2018, the Kremlin sought to carve out a role for itself in the deliberations. Officially, it supported the U.N. sanctions while at the same time siding with North Korea and lending diplomatic support for Pyongyang's offer to abandon its nuclear weapons program in return for a U.S. withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula.

As the prospect of direct negotiation between the U.S. and North Korea has gained traction, however, Russia has been conspicuous by the extent to which it has been marginalized in the diplomatic discussions.

Kim Jong-un has been equally conspicuous in making two trips to Beijing to confer with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The absence of any high-level meetings between senior Russian and North Korean government officials has further underscored the Kremlin's marginal role.

It's likely that, should Trump and Kim agree on staging formal talks over a Korean Peace Treaty, the Kremlin will push to either include Russia in the talks or to have such talks held under the auspices of the U.N. Security Council. Staging the talks under the Security Council's supervision would guarantee Russia a ringside seat in the resulting negotiations.

There is precedent for holding the talks under Security Council supervision, since the original intervention of the U.S. into the Korean conflict was done under U.N. Security Council authorization. It's likely, however, that Washington would push to limit the participants to the U.S., China, North Korea and South Korea.

Japan

Japan has also been a big loser in the developing rapprochement between the two Koreas and between North Korea and the U.S. Tokyo has reached out to Pyongyang to set up talks between the two countries, but so far has been rebuffed by North Korea.

Among the items on Tokyo's agenda for talks with North Korea is the status of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and presumably living in North Korea.

Japan, which is well within range of North Korean missiles, is vulnerable to any agreement between the U.S. and North Korea that would see Washington agree to allowing North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons stockpile and intermediate-range missiles in return for giving up any missiles capable of striking the North American continent.

Such an agreement is unlikely as it would effectively mean that the U.S. is abandoning its two most important Northeast Asian allies and it would have far-reaching implications for America's position in East Asia and the Western Pacific.

Should the U.S. ever agree to such an agreement, it would represent the complete uncoupling of Northeast Asia from the U.S. security umbrella and would call into question the reliability of U.S. security guarantees from Taiwan to the Philippines.

However improbable such an outcome is, Tokyo's diplomats must consider that, given the unpredictability of the Trump administration's foreign policy and its emphasis on "America First," such an agreement is not outside the realm of possibility.

Adding fuel to Japanese concerns is that over the weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made some comments suggesting that the U.S. might be open to an agreement that only restricted intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.

Those comments, however, have to be viewed against the backdrop that the Trump administration is pressuring both South Korea and Japan to shoulder a greater proportion of the costs of stationing U.S. military forces on their soil.

Ultimately, Pompeo's comments may be a bluff, but it is a bluff that neither Tokyo or Seoul can afford the risks of calling.

Next Steps

The elephant in the room remains the future of Kim Jong-un's nuclear arsenal. Kim has made it clear that he is looking for a phased denuclearization: One in which progress would be met by a phased reduction in economic sanctions and an increase in western humanitarian aid and investment.

The Trump administration has made it equally clear that given past experience with North Korea, any kind of phased denuclearization is off the table. The White House has made it repeatedly clear, most recently reaffirmed by both Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, that Pyongyang must first verifiably abandon its nuclear program before it can expect any concessions from the U.S.

According to Pompeo, North Korean denuclearization would at a minimum entail the transfer of North Korean nuclear scientists overseas; the destruction of data concerning North Korea's nuclear weapons development, as well as data obtained from its missile tests; and the dismantling of North Korea's nuclear weapons under U.S. supervision.

It would also include limits on the number and permitted range of North Korea's missile arsenal, as well as strict controls on Pyongyang's ability to manufacture weapons-grade uranium or plutonium.

Having leveraged its nuclear weapons capability into a prominent role on the world's stage, it's highly unlikely that Kim will give them up easily. U.S. promises of investment and financial aid, as well as guarantees not to seek regime change in Pyongyang, are unlikely to persuade Kim to give up his nuclear capability.

From that standpoint, it is unlikely that the Trump-Kim summit will produce an agreement on North Korea's denuclearization. It may, however, produce an agreement for a moratorium on future nuclear weapons and missile testing.

It may also produce an agreement for four power talks between China, North Korea, South Korea and the U.S. over a final peace treaty to formally end the Korean War.

Such an outcome would be sufficient for both North Korea and the U.S. to claim a diplomatic victory, and it would build momentum toward a resolution while both sides continue their talks on North Korean denuclearization.

With each passing day, North Korea's status as a nuclear power becomes a fait accompli, however, even if it fails to have the economic sanctions rolled back.

For the Trump administration, the risk is that if the talks for North Korean denuclearization begin to appear to be going on indefinitely, it will look like the White House is ultimately falling into the same trap of "strategic patience" for which it criticized previous administrations.

On the other hand, if it agrees to any relaxation of sanctions or the provisioning of any aid, either directly or from South Korea, it risks looking like it has been played in the same way previous administrations were manipulated.

For now, both sides are keen to give the impression that a diplomatic breakthrough is within the realm of possibility. That's progress, especially given where the two countries were only a few months ago.

This diplomatic roller coaster ride, however, is far from over.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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