The North Korea Situation Is a Total Mess Right Now
As Trump and Kim Jong-un prepare to finally meet (or not), other Asian powers are watching—and working behind the scenes.
For anyone following North Korean affairs, the past days have been whiplash-inducing. On Thursday, Donald Trump suddenly backed out of a June 13 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in planning since March, in a bizarre letter. A day later, North Korean officials released conciliatory statements, which Trump apparently found fairly pleasing. By Sunday, US diplomats were in North Korea, prepping once again for the summit, which may or may not be back on. “Given the volatility of the situation,” Northeast Asian affairs expert Yun Sun told me, it does not seem like the status of the summit “will become clear or confirmed” anytime soon.
Naturally most coverage of these developments has focused on Trump and Kim, two notoriously capricious men whose reactions to each other over the next two weeks could doom or save this meet-up. But they aren’t the only actors who matter. Regional powers China, Japan, and South Korea all have their own diplomatic goals and leverage points with North Korea, not to mention differing views on the proposed Trump-Kim talks. So how have these nations reacted to this summit drama, and what might their actions mean for the US and the region? Let’s take a tour:
South Korea has been deeply invested in, and instrumental to, the Trump-Kim summit from day one. President Moon Jae-in came to power in part on a platform of diplomatic engagement with North Korea. Alexis Dudden, a historian of modern Korea, told me that Moon sees regularizing relations with his neighbor as vital both to avoiding a violent disaster and for the future of the regional economy. Over the past five months especially, he’s worked hard to repair ties with the North and to mediate between it and the US. It was through his government that the March outreach from North Korea that evolved into the proposed summit was relayed to Trump, although there is disagreement about how much his efforts directly created the opening for such talks. Moon held a historic summit with Kim on April 27, publicly affirming a mutual vision for a denuclearized peninsula and for closer economic and cultural North-South ties.
When Trump canceled the summit Moon had worked so hard to help set up last week, he was reportedly blindsided and distressed. The experts I’ve spoken to all agree Moon will likely continue trying to play the mediator, keeping North Korea diplomatically engaged while soothing the US. On Saturday, Moon held an impromptu summit with Kim and on Monday noted that more inter-Korean summits could occur in the future. He also publicly urged the US and North Korea to stage more gradual working talks in the lead-up to the summit to resolve any disagreements or misunderstandings.
Moon’s attempts to patch things up are not without their risks, though. Several experts I spoke to noted that one of the reasons Trump likely cooled on the summit was that he realized that North Korean views on what "denuclearization" means are different from his own. Trump wants the North Koreans to give up their nukes unilaterally; they want him to in exchange remove his nuclear umbrella and maybe even troops from the Korean peninsula and nearby areas. There is a chance, said nonproliferation expert Vipin Narang, that Trump feels Moon misrepresented North Korea’s position to warm him to the idea of a summit.
On top of this, added Dudden, when Moon came to power many in DC read him as potentially anti-American and pro-North Korean because he is a progressive, and that wing of Korean politicians are sometimes pro-unification America skeptics. He allayed these fears early on, said Dudden, by affirming early on that he wants to work toward peace on the peninsula with the Americans and would not oppose their military presence. But there is a risk, said Korea watcher Bruce Klingner, that if Moon seems too much like he’s advocating for North Korea he might provoke hostility and mistrust in DC.
“He wants to continue improving relations between North and South Korea,” said Korea wonk Lisa Collins. “But he also doesn’t want to do anything that would move him away from the American alliance in any way.” This means he will likely continue to hold talks with North Korea, make symbolic declarations, and perhaps reunite families or promote student exchanges. But he will likely stop short of, say, serious economic engagement. He will also keep nudging Trump and trying to make sure that everyone involved in the summit is on the same page. But since the officials in his administration are—as they have told Dudden—downright flummoxed by Trump’s approach to diplomacy, Moon and company will likely be on eggshells indefinitely, unsure of how far they can push US–North Korean dialogue before Trump pushes back.
“South Korea is in the most precarious situation” of any regional player right now, said Narang, “and you could see it on Moon’s face” on Thursday when Trump first killed the summit.
Unlike South Korea, China was not pushing for the Trump-Kim summit. In fact the summit’s announcement reportedly caught the nation off-guard and put it on the diplomatic defensive.
In theory, China does not have an issue with talks between North Korea and the US. While it is North Korea’s ally, explained regional affairs scholar Weiqi Zhang, China is not fully comfortable with a nuclear North Korea, as it could destabilize regional power politics. China would also rather see a diplomatic resolution to tensions between the US and North Korea than a war, which would likely send Korean refugees over its border and lead to an American military presence right on the Chinese border, if not an American puppet regime in Pyongyang. Ideally, added Collins, the Chinese may hope that negotiations would lead to a peace treaty that would lead the US to withdraw its troops from South Korea, removing US pressure from China’s backyard.
But China and North Korea have been on the rocks since Kim took power in 2011. Collins said that Kim wants to be more than China’s little brother and so plays the US and China off of each other to give himself space. He’s also purged many individuals with Beijing ties from his regime. This has led China to fear that a rogue Kim might cut a deal with the US that would not be in China's interests. Maybe North Korea would essentially become a nuclear-capable US ally, some in China feared. Or maybe the country would strike a unification deal that’d allow American troops to roll right up to the Chinese border and park there for years to come.
These concerns were exacerbated when, after the April summit between the Koreas, the North signed an agreement to engage in either trilateral or quadrilateral talks—phrasing that made it seem like the North and South and US would talk for sure, but China might be on the outside looking in. “China doesn’t want to be left out of the negotiations,” said Zhang.
For weeks, China has been trying to reassert its diplomatic dominance over Korea, Zhang said. (It has also, Collins added, likely been looking for ways to backchannel into any US–North Korean talks.) It seems to be doing so, the experts I spoke to said, by stressing its economic value to Pyongyang; China is by far North Korea's most important trading partner. Although China implemented harsh sanctions last year to pressure North Korea into engaging in talks, some reports indicate China may be loosening the screws as a sweetener for Kim. That’s something the Chinese are likely willing to do, said Chinese policy expert Tong Zhao, as they believe economic engagement can mellow out North Korea’s paranoia.
Whatever China has done, for whatever reasons, it seems to have worked. Since April, Kim has made two trips to China, including his first foreign jaunt as North Korea’s leader, to meet with officials. This, said Zhao, seems to have assuaged China’s fears that North Korea would act against its interests. “They’ve won,” added Narang. “The Chinese have basically got their desired outcome,” a.k.a. the normalization of the relationship with North Korea. As such, China has been relatively quiet about the fate of the Trump-Kim summit, confident that if it moves forward it will have a voice through its leverage with North Korea.
This is a great development for North Korea as well. Although China’s reasserted its regional dominance and sway over the North, Narang points out that the economic carrots it will throw Kim’s way will take off some pressure to negotiate. That puts Kim in a much stronger position than he would have been in otherwise.
Like China, Japan was taken aback by the sudden announcement of a US-North Korean summit. In Japan’s case, explained Klingner, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “thought he had the best relationship of any leader with Trump” and that “we were on the same page of maximum pressure” against and direct confrontation with North Korea. Then all of a sudden Trump was leaning into diplomacy while Abe was still waving around the North Korean bogeyman saber.
Beyond the embarrassment of this sudden abandonment, Japanese officials openly worried that Trump might be so eager to be the president who resolved the Korean crisis that he’d take the first good-for-America deal that came his way and throw his ally Japan under the bus. He might, for instance, get Kim to give up missiles that could reach the US but allow the North Korean leader to keep a small nuclear arsenal and missiles capable of hitting Japan—while perhaps pulling US troops out of the region. Meanwhile, if the Koreas moved together they might gang up on Japan, which occupied the peninsula brutally in the 20th century.
For Abe, Narang noted, it might be nice if the summit doesn’t come together, so long as Kim doesn’t in turn restart aggressive missile testing around Japan. Because while South Korea has tried to stress that it wants to engage all regional players and approves of Japan talking to North Korea independently, the Japanese just don’t have many chits to play. Dudden noted the Japanese have generally done a poor job of owning up to the wrongs they’ve done to other nations in the region. And all they can offer North Korea is some economic investment.
If the summit does come through, said Narang, the best Abe might be able to do is try to be the last leader to whisper in Trump’s ear. Reports indicate that may be exactly what he aims to do, as he's going to meet with the US president before the June summit. That tactic may not be very effective, though. Instead, Dudden argued, it could make him look weak or silly. And that could cost Abe in upcoming elections, perhaps leading to another Japanese politician—one with radically different views on tackling Trump and Kim—coming to power.
Other nations could try to engage North Korea in the coming weeks of uncertainty. Collins notes that “Russia is certainly a player,” for instance. It usually plays the role of spoiler, depending on how much it wants to mess with American interests by undermining sanctions and providing the North Koreans with economic and political support to give them more negotiating leeway.
But, Collins added, the Russians are hardly as consequential for the future of North Korean diplomacy as America, China, Japan, and South Korea. These are the nations with real leverage in the ongoing global crisis that is North Korea. And only Japan has any real problem with a Trump–Kim summit—it just lacks the power or influence to do anything about it. South Korea’s Moon, meanwhile, will be doing his best to make sure the summit does come through. And China will work to make sure that if the summit happens its voice will be heard.
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