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The US-DPRK summit & China's regional concerns

15 Jun 2018 - 13:52

Epic, or so it seems. On 12 June 2018, the American president Donald J. Trump and the North-Korean leader Kim Jong-Un signed a remarkable final declaration in Singapore. Kim wholeheartedly agreed to a full-fledged “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. In exchange, president Trump has agreed to offer the North-Korean regime in Pyongyang some necessary security guarantees. That is reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when president John F. Kennedy brokered a similar deal in secret with the regime of Fidel Castro. What to think about of all this?

Trump threw away all manuals on diplomacy. As far as standard procedure goes, a meeting with the president of the United States is usually seen as a reward for the whole of a negotiation process and the efforts that were made during such a course. “Dealmaker” Trump completely reversed that sequence. He looked Kim straight in the eye and was convinced that business could be done. Still, the final joint communiqué is no more than a declaration of intent and the start of a process. Much is left unclear as far as the execution of the plan is concerned. That is why the second last paragraph of the text states that the American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will conduct follow-up talks with a high representative of the DPRK.

Beijing will probably be prepared to protect North Korea, perhaps by extending its nuclear umbrella slightly?

Although this initially suggests a “quick win” on the part of the Americans, the picture becomes more blurred as one starts to reflect about what happened in Singapore. The Americans are shifting their negotiation position on favor of North Korea. The text refers to a disarmament of the Korean Peninsula as a whole, and not of North Korea in specific. That alone could have consequences for the presence of American troops on South Korean soil, although president Trump would later deny this in interviews. What if, in a separate process, North and South Korea would soon sign a peace agreement to formally end the 1950-1953 war? What leverage would the US then still have to retain its military presence of roughly  29.000 soldiers in South Korea?

Kim is playing a clever game. His first official meeting with a foreign leader abroad was with the Chinese president Xi Jinping, some time ago. Kim would never give up all of his nuclear weapons in the blink of an eye. The best Trump can hope for, is a step by step process. In exchange, the US will very likely also have to take some steps of their own to gain the trust of North Korea, or else there is no reciprocity. Beijing will probably be prepared to protect North Korea, perhaps by extending its nuclear umbrella slightly? We don’t have a clue really, but it is very likely Kim and Jinping have an understanding of their own in this regard. The DPRK cannot be left unprotected if and when it would start disarming. Can the Americans be trusted? The US president has proven to be erratic more than once in the past, as was again aptly illustrated by the G7 Summit in Canada last week. Beijing can offer Pyongyang an ‘insurance policy’.

Kim was the big winner of Singapore

The People’s Republic of China could very well become the benefiting third party of this story. China and North Korea have already managed to secure their first trophy; Trump has announced to temporarily put a hold on its joint military exercises with South-Korea, because of “their high cost” and because “they are an insult to the DPRK.” The withdrawal of American defensive missiles in the region is also on top of the Chinese wish list. In particular THAAD comes to mind. THAAD stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. This anti-ballistic missile defense system is designed to shoot down short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase (descent or reentry) by intercepting with a hit-to-kill approach. It was stationed in South Korea last year.

However, THAAD is not only a geopolitical countermeasure against the DPRK, it also checks the strategic maneuverability of the People’s Republic of China. This technology enables the Americans to see many miles and on high radar resolution in Chinese military airspace. The Russian federation is also very much frustrated by the THAAD deployment in the region. Not accidentally, Putin issued a threat a few months ago to develop a new type of revolutionary weapons as a compensation for such defence weapons as THAAD.

To China and Russia, the introduction of such defensive missiles in the region would constitute an erosion of their nuclear dissuasion strategy, which according to them cannot be tolerated. The North Korean crisis is an ideal opportunity to “push back” the American geostrategic forward deployment. And the problem for Washington will be that if it does not downscale its presence, it may well be accused in the near to mid-term future of defying the “spirit of Singapore”. Kim will probably also meet Xi Jinping soon, as well as Putin, whom he is due to meet in September. The geopolitical chess game will only grow more complex now that Beijing and Moscow will probably be trying to push their geostrategic agendas.

Kim was the big winner of Singapore. He saved his regime, legitimation & recognition and he “bought” time. There was no mention on human rights in the text. In Singapore, the North Korean leader got the aura of a rockstar, and even appeared to be a respected world leader. It remains to be seen what the course of action will look like now. Soon, several processes will intertwine; the detente of the two Koreas, the Chinese and the Russian agenda, and a debate in within the fold of the UN Security Council. Will ‘Singapore’ stand the test of time?1  

  • 1The author would like to sincerely thank Ms. Valérie A. Deridder for her initial translation draft from Dutch to English.


David Criekemans
Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Antwerp (Belgium)