The long-discussed summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un—beset by doubts and delays—finally took place on June 12. The meeting itself was brief—a 35 minute closed-door discussion with only the two leaders’ translators present, followed by a public meeting that lasted scarcely longer and ended with the signing of a terse joint statement. Trump would provide security guarantees to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Kim Jong-un “reaffirmed” his firm and unwavering commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The United States would suspend its military exercises with South Korea, and North Korea would expedite the recovery and repatriation of the remains of prisoners of war and those listed as missing in action.
Conspicuous by their absence were the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Japan, the two large regional powers most directly concerned with the outcome, with their respective reactions likely to have significant influence on future progress toward an abatement of tensions.
Chinese Concerns Allayed
Reports that Beijing felt left out of the action were quickly refuted by the Chinese press, with the nationalistic Global Times warning beforehand that, whether present or not, China could not be left out. Any Kim-Trump agreement could only be prelude to a peace treaty ending the Korean War, and since the PRC was a signatory to the armistice, it would have to sign the peace treaty as well. However, the author of the Global Times article, a research fellow at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, alluded to concerns that China would be excluded from an agreement that could potentially weaken China’s influence over the Korean peninsula: a “possible subterfuge of South Korea and the U.S.” to blur the distinction between a communiqué and a treaty. In this case, he argued, “China has the right to nullify it.” He did not mention how a blurred distinction could be nullified. In any case, Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping had at least two meetings prior to the summit and, given the crucial role the PRC has played in keeping a floundering North Korean economy afloat, it was unlikely that Kim would bite the hand that had quite literally fed his country. While China had in September 2017 signed United Nations Resolution 2375 limiting the export of crude oil and refined petroleum products to North Korea, there have been several verified instances of Chinese ships transferring oil to North Korean ships, and a thriving black and gray market continues to operate on the PRC-DPRK border.
Still, China cannot count out the possibility that closer ties between North Korea and the U.S. could loosen Kim’s dependence on China. Beijing has good reasons to suspect that he would like to do so: in 2013, Kim murdered an uncle who was considered pro-China amid rumors of a planned coup. Four years later, his half-brother, supported in exile by China presumably as a replacement for Kim should he prove too difficult to control, was also murdered. Symbolically, Kim arrived not on a North Korean Air Koryo flight but on an Air China plane loaned to him for the occasion. Possibly for reasons of security, the plane maximized its time over Chinese airspace, even deviating slightly to fly over Hainan Province.
As concluded, the Kim-Trump agreement is precisely the so-called dual suspension or “freeze for freeze” that Beijing has advocated for at least two years: North Korea will suspend its nuclear tests in return for a U.S. halt in its military exercises with South Korea. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, repeating that China had “always” played an important role in ensuring peace and security on the Korean peninsula, with the implication that it meant to continue to do so, immediately suggested that sanctions on North Korea should be relaxed. Border trade has begun to increase, in the apparent expectation that already poorly enforced restrictions will be soon legalized. China, whose largesse has recently been extended to many countries through its Belt and Road Initiative, could be expected to play a major role in the modernization of its neighbor. Several Chinese analysts have opined that Beijing would serve as guarantor of the peace agreement, both in inspecting the progress of denuclearization that is so important to Washington and in providing assurances to Kim that if he gives up the nuclear card that he believes keeps him from being overthrown, his regime will be safe. Unspoken but clearly present is that this arrangement would allow Beijing to maintain its leverage over both Pyongyang and Washington.
Oddly, although the Chinese government must have been very pleased with the outcome of the Kim-Trump meeting, the state media’s reporting on the topic was low key. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s formal comment was that “China appreciates the political decisions made by the leaders of the U.S. and the DPRK, welcomes and supports the achievements of the summit, and praises the efforts by all relevant parties to promote the summit.” Official news agency Xinhua gave pride of place on its front page to Xi Jinping’s speech at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and China Daily covered it in the paper’s Asia section. Global Timespointedly put quotation marks around Trump’s claims for “success” and for the establishment of “new” diplomatic relations, indicating skepticism.
Japanese Apprehensions Continue
Reactions from Japan, which could not have been pleased with the outcome, were also low-key. Tokyo, like Beijing, has been concerned with being left out, but has far less leverage over the situation. A newspaper cartoon that appeared shortly before the summit depicted a basketball game in which China and the U.S. leaped into the air with the two Koreas and Russia nearby on the court, while Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō sat disconsolately on the bench. Japan is concerned not only with intercontinental missiles, but with Kim’s sizeable arsenal of shorter range missiles that have flown over Japan and could potentially be targeted against it. Since there was no public acknowledgement that these issues were discussed, the Japanese government would be justified in concluding that not only had it not been included in the talks, but that Washington had neglected the concerns of its closest Asian ally.
Another issue that is particularly important to Japanese public opinion is that of abductees: Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean operatives, at least some of them for the purpose of teaching young children being trained as spies and terrorists to speak accentless Japanese. The Japanese government officially recognizes 17 such people, of whom the youngest was only 13 when taken, but other reports indicate that there may be several hundred. Abe raised this issue during a pre-summit meeting with Trump in Washington, and later stated that Trump assured him that he had mentioned it to Kim, though there has been no public acknowledgement of this by either leader. Asked about the abductee question at a press conference, Japanese Foreign Minister Kōno Tarō indicated that, in the end, the matter would have to be discussed directly between Tokyo and Pyongyang.
Yomiuri, Japan’s newspaper with the largest circulation, lamented the lack of a road map for the future, while Kyodo, the country’s major press agency, warned that Trump has little room for mistakes. Experts agreed that if Washington and Pyongyang sign a peace treaty before denuclearization, the U.S. would have tacitly admitted that it had acknowledged North Korea as a nuclear state and removed incentive for Pyongyang to rid itself of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, including short- and medium- range missiles capable of hitting South Korea and Japan. It would be acceptable to issue a peace declaration, and even open liaison offices in each other’s capitals, but concluding a peace treaty should come at the end of denuclearization. The agency voiced suspicion that Kim’s aim was to win sanctions relief in return for a freeze on testing, while buying time to make a nuclear-armed North Korea a fait accompli. It also pointed out that the communiqué had not included America’s pre-summit demand for CVID—complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament. Although unmentioned by Kyodo, should disarmament fail, forces within Japan that seek to change its peace constitution, and even some who argue that if North Korea has nuclear weapons, so should Japan, will be incentivized. The Chinese government, which suspects this could be a step toward the revival of a militarized Japan, is vitally concerned that this not happen.
So, yes, this was a historic summit, but a success only in terms of not being a failure. It represents the beginning of a process rather than the conclusion to a problem, with the distinct possibility that the foundation created by the meeting will disintegrate short of fulfillment. And although the meeting closed with sentiments more akin to China’s wishes than Japan’s, both foresee the possibility of dangers to their security lurking ahead.