On June 13 the Valdai Discussion Club hosted an expert discussion in the wake of the meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore featuring prominent international relations experts. They discussed who was the winner of the summit and who was the loser, and how strong the reached agreements are.
The meeting of the leaders of the United States and the DPRK, held on June 12, can launch a series of positive processes aimed at strengthening security in Northeast Asia, greater involvement of North Korea in regional and global affairs and economic development of the country. But Pyongyang’s steps will be extremely cautious: Kim Jong-un has long-term plans, realizing that the policy of the United States towards North Korea may change after Trump and even during his presidency.
Although Donald Trump already presents the summit as his personal achievement, it is obvious that Kim Jong-un got much more, the discussion participants noted. This is evidenced by the provisions of the final declaration, which, while vague enough, still reflect the position of North Korea more than that of the United States. According to Konstantin Asmolov, leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in recent weeks Trump shifted towards a more pragmatic approach to dialogue with the DPRK, realizing that demands for unconditional renunciation of nuclear weapons are unrealistic. That is why the declaration refers to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, not of North Korea.
The improvement of relations with the US should be seen in the context of Kim Jong-un’s long-term strategy aimed at improving the national welfare, the panelists noted. According to Asmolov, under the current leader, North Koreans’ living standards have grown significantly, and if sanctions are rolled back even to the 2014 level, Kim has good chances to lead the country to prosperity. Professor Georgy Toloraya, head of the Center for Russian Strategy in Asia at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who participated in the discussion via video link from Singapore, pointed to Kim’s clear interest in the Singaporean development model, which he demonstrated during his visit. According to him, it is possible that this model is the “bright future” that Kim offers to his people. Americans understand this and can contribute to it, the expert said.
However, the key factor here is China’s position. According to Toloraya, to be friends with both America and China is the “crystal dream” of North Korean leaders. But China is watching the behavior of its “young and active neighbor” with anxiety, sensitively reacting to any manipulation attempts.
Experts noted that the Kim-Trump summit was preceded by normalization of relations between Beijing and Pyongyang. Vasily Kashin, Senior Research Fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies, suggested that China probably has its own big deal with the North Korean leadership, and we do not know anything about the content. But some details of the summit can lead to the assumption that China was to become its third, “virtual” participant. So, Kim arrived in Singapore on a Chinese plane and photos of the North Korean leader on the background of the Chinese flag on its fuselage can serve as a sign of Chinese presence. According to Toloraya, the deal meant to show to Trump that China is behind Kim and he is grateful for this. Also, it is quite obvious that no peace treaty between the DPRK and South Korea/USA can be signed without the participation of the PRC, which was one of the parties to the 1953 armistice.
As for other regional players, the main loser of the summit was Japan. Trump made a ritual mention of the fate of the abducted Japanese citizens, but that was the only thing he did to defend the interests of his ally. According to Toloraya, “[Prime Minister of Japan] Abe got a punch on his nose and will become more flexible.” This is a chance for Moscow, which, together with Tokyo, can push for the multilateral format of the inter-Korean settlement.
The participants paid much attention to the issue of strength of the agreements. According to Edward Luttwak, senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, who participated in the discussion via video link, Trump’s position can be formulated as follows: “everything for everything and nothing for something.” Accordingly, any deal of limited nature can be revised, as this happened with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for the Iranian nuclear program. In the case of North Korea, “everything” means Pyongyang’s complete renunciation of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery. And in this sense, the summit in Singapore did not change anything, the American expert said.
However, the Russian participants in the discussion questioned the idea of “everything for everything.” They recalled that Muammar Gaddafi’s complete refusal from the nuclear program and reconciliation with the West cost him power and, eventually, life. According to Konstantin Asmolov, one cannot be sure that even in case of a perfect deal, Trump’s successor will not want to reconsider its terms.
Indeed, another important factor for the success of the process launched in Singapore is the political future of Donald Trump. Kim keeps in mind the option when he will have to deal with Trump’s successor, while Trump’s thinking is more short-term. According to Luttwak, in Singapore Trump did not have any strategy and his task was to give a powerful impetus, something he succeeded with. But the further process is an equation with many unknowns.