The political scene in Northeast Asia is changing drastically following the Pyeongchang Olympic Games. Several high-level meetings are being held on the Korean denuclearization issue. Kim Jong Un visited Beijing clandestinely by train to see Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 28. Among others, the ROK-DPRK summit meeting at Panmunjeom by the ROK President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un on April 27th made a joint declaration aimed at “perfect denuclearization of Korean Peninsula.”
The ultimate goal of these meetings is the US-DPRK summit meeting between President Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong-un. To the surprise of the global media, Kim visited Dalian once again on May 7 to see President Xi. After this meeting, President Xi phoned President Trump directly to urge for the acceptance of Kim’s step-by-step approach. Thus, the historic meeting in Singapore was set on June 12, following US State |Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang on May 9. Things in Northeast Asia are going quite swiftly.
Compared with these politically dramatic events, most of which are bilateral in character, such format as the Japan-Korea-China summit, which took place simultaneously on May 9 in Tokyo, looks like secondary. However, this multilateral format deserves no less attention of the global community, because the economic weight of China, as the second global power, Japan as the third economic giant, and ROK as the eleventh GDP economy (2017), are going to be combined in due course. Thus, Northeast Asia is changing not only politically, but also economically.
This needs some explanation. This format of trilateral summit among Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo never occurred autonomously for historical reasons. History mattered in this part of the world. After the 1945 defeat of the Japanese Empire, the Korean War took place in 1950-53, and is still not over formally until today, as we see it. Thus, in East Asia economic integration had to be developed prior to political reconciliation and peace settlement. The Japan-Korea-China Summit first emerged in 1997 as appendices of ASEAN or ASEAN plus 3, to cope with economic crises. In ten years’ time, “plus 3” became independent from ASEAN in 2007, but relations among the three powers remained far from institutionalized, because of historical to territorial reasons. This May meeting in Tokyo is the seventh, after two and a half year interval.
This Tokyo meeting things are noteworthy, because their agendas are not limited on Korean geopolitical, or denuclearization issue but also geo-economic cooperation, including economic free zone, and even on historical matters. My comment, however, must be limited to the Korean peninsula nuclear question.
First, the strategy and tactics. There is still no consensus among the three participants, though their apparent positions are closing together.
The Chinese delegation, led by Prime Minister Li Keqiang, was less demanding in terms of DPRK denuclearization, though they were officially against DPRK’s capability of nuclear deterrence. Also less demanding position was taken by ROK president Moon Jae-in who had just made joint Panmunjom Declaration with Kim Jong-un on the “perfect denuclearization of the Peninsula.” This author agrees with Russian and Chinese Valdai experts who said at a meeting in Shanghai in late April that no novel developments in the inter-Korean dialogue were taking place.
Meanwhile Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was stronger in demanding the “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement, or CVID.” This was in line with the US position. Their differences were based on principles, timetable, as well as strategic divide, exit vs. entrance. Still, as the US-DPRK summit became imminent, the Japanese position also somewhat softened. President Moon persuaded Premier Abe that “perfect denuclearization” also included CVID in principle. Eventually, the joint declaration became more or less in line with ROK position of perfect denuclearization.
Of course, the very concept of denuclearization in the past discourses is far from clear. Past records of negotiations with DPRK are full of ambiguity and resulting discrepancy and collapses. The devil is in the detail. Skeptics are prevalent among the expert community over the future of Korean denuclearization. Nothing is new in the present declarations. Also, no illusions exist among the three countries experts’ position. Still, the alternative to these negotiations is also disastrous.
The Korean War is definitely not yet over, even though the end of the global cold war seems less certain now than a quarter century ago. Thus, the decision to end the Korean nuclear impasse, and eventually the Korean War, by the Japan-Korea-China summit deserves serious global attention.