When Kim meets Trump: compromise holds the key to peace in Korea

Cary Huang says recent summit diplomacy has brought the world closer to a resolution on the North Korean nuclear crisis than ever before. But the final act in Singapore – a historic meeting between a sitting US president and the leader of communist North Korea – may still disappoint 

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2018, 2:57pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2018, 8:32pm

It took them seven years to have their first face-to-face encounter, but only five weeks for a reunion. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s two visits to China within five weeks, during which he held talks with President Xi Jinping, shows how rapidly things are moving on the diplomatic front as various parties try to forge peace – or at least cool tensions – on the Korean peninsula. 

Kim’s two-day trip to the northern Chinese city of Dalian last week facilitated his second encounter with Xi, following his visit to Beijing in late March, which was the 34-year-old leader’s first overseas trip since he came to power in 2011. Kim also held a landmark summit with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in in late April. 

Yet, this trio of summits are considered warm-up acts for the decisive final act in Singapore next month: a meeting between Kim and US President Donald Trump, which would be the first such meeting between a sitting US president and the autocratic leader of America’s long-time communist adversary. 

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The flurry of summit diplomacy indicated remarkable progress on the resolution of the Korean stand-off, the most confrontational of the lingering hostilities since the end of the second world war.

It also demonstrated the goodwill and strong desire for cooperation among the four major players – Washington, Beijing, Pyongyang and Seoul – despite the recent escalating of US-China tensions over trade and Taiwan

Satellite images show North Korea dismantling its nuclear test site

The United States and China have long been key players on the Korea issue, not only because they are the world’s most powerful nations today, but also because they were both signatories of the armistice agreement signed at the end of the Korean war hostilities in 1953, though China’s involvement was under the name of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army. 

In the years since Pyongyang began its nuclear programme in the 1980s, China has played the role of mediator between US-led allies and North Korea. However, Beijing was unsettled recently by the lightning pace of diplomacy between Pyongyang, Washington and Seoul, fearful of being left out of the fast-moving progress. 

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While all players are agreed on the eventual goals of denuclearisation and the signing of a peace treaty, everyone has their own definition of what those goals mean and how progress should be made. They also have various strategic objectives, which might be contradictory or mutually exclusive. 

For instance, Kim’s foremost interest is to secure his regime’s survival through extracting major concessions from a seemingly united world. He would almost certainly try to exploit any divisions among the other players. 

The Trump administration demands that Pyongyang immediately and completely dismantles its nascent nuclear arsenal before any significant concessions are given, in view of the games Pyongyang has played in the past to extract billions of dollars in aid, in exchange for an empty promise to end its nuclear programme. 

Beijing – and probably Seoul – prefers a step-by-step approach to eventual denuclearisation.

With the signing of a peace treaty, Beijing would also push for the total withdrawal of the US military presence on the peninsula and, in particular, the removal of the US missile defence system – THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defence – that was installed last year in South Korea to counter the North Korean nuclear threat, but which Beijing sees as a threat to its own national security. 

Apparently, the purpose of Kim’s China visits was to assure North Korea’s sole and long-time patron, China, that Pyongyang-Beijing relations will take precedence over all else, despite the prospects for the normalisation of Pyongyang’s relations with Seoul and Washington. 

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Kim might also have convinced Xi that whatever negotiations he will have with Trump will align to some degree with Beijing’s positions and accommodate its core interests. 

The world may now be on the cusp of a historic moment when a diplomatic mission impossible is made possible. But it will only happen if all major players are seriously and sincerely prepared to make some radical concessions and align with the other stakeholders’ core interests.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post