Donald Trump has upended not only the sanctions regime, but also the framework of diplomacy involving North Korea. A scramble is bound to ensue for leverage in shaping the geopolitics of Northeast Asia and for asserting national identities in this regional context. While Trump is the driving force, he is unlikely to assert a regional vision, as he interprets “America First” as a path to make unilateral changes in troop numbers, trade deficits, and commitments to allies. Other leaders active in the region are not inclined to be so shortsighted. This essay explores how Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China, Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea, Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation, and Abe Shinzo of Japan may draw on their recent thinking about geopolitics and national identities to step up diplomacy with Kim Jong-un and in this region.
A geopolitical competition should not surprise anyone, given the widespread recognition that the Korean peninsula is situated at the crossroads of four great powers eager to strengthen, or at least sustain, their influence in East Asia and of South Korea’s diplomatic calculus to capitalize on great power rivalries. Whether one focuses on Seoul’s aspirations for a more autonomous and influential Korea on the path to reunification; Washington’s desire to remove a dangerous nuclear threat; Beijing’s insistence on regaining the pivotal role in diplomacy in order to ensure that North Korea is part of a reemergent sphere of influence; Tokyo’s desperation to prevent a hostile dagger pointed squarely at it; or Moscow’s scramble to make North Korea a vital cog in holding tight to its exposed Russian Far East, geopolitics is a familiar way to grasp developments. Yet, this prism is inadequate to assess leaders obsessed with transforming national identities.
Prospects for Individual Leaders
For Xi Jinping, the surge in diplomacy represents both opportunity and danger. In pursuit of the “China Dream,” he is poised to prioritize North Korea in a drive to forge a Sinocentric region and to reinvigorate socialism, drawing on the “bond sealed in blood” between Beijing and Pyongyang and, at long last, taking heart from “reform socialism” with an economic focus in North Korea. It is difficult to point to anything that would hold China back from rewarding Kim Jong-un for taking steps toward a reduction of tensions and an acceleration of market openings without relaxing political control that could result in regime instability. The one question mark is how worried is China that Kim Jong-un is driven by fear of being engulfed in a Sinocentric region that could be a result of joining the Belt and Road Initiative and being caught in a debt trap. Kim’s decision to prioritize contacts with Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump rather than Xi may be less than reassuring, even if he quickly visited China twice in the spring and flew to Singapore on a Chinese plane.
Moon may have second thoughts about the process that he unleashed with the Winter Olympics. His dream of “reunification” as a means to transform a national identity burdened by the legacy of conservative rule and division appears newly plausible, but the delicate balance for pursuing it is already being threatened. Trump’s unilateral decision to suspend joint military exercises and his talk of withdrawing U.S. forces from South Korea could leave Seoul exposed with little diplomatic leverage. Without coordination with Washington, Seoul is ill-positioned to maneuver, (unless Kim Jong-un is set on keeping his distance from Beijing), or to defy Washington, relaxing sanctions at an early stage of diplomacy. When Kim needed a path to arouse Trump’s interest, Moon was conveniently available, but if Seoul is hesitant about economic benefits, Kim may have little interest in keeping the momentum. Kim will likely press for Washington to reduce its presence just when many around Moon will be intent on restraining such impulses of Trump.
If Xi’s Sinocentric “China Dream” and Moon’s inevitably South Korean-centric “reunification” lead to diplomacy that Kim will find difficult to embrace, Putin’s “Turn to the East” is promising for its reinforcement of North Korea’s autonomy. Putin has made victorious achievements in 1945 the centerpiece in reviving what is essentially a superpower mentality, treating North Korea’s closeness to the Soviet Union as one such success and as a litmus test for reasserting Russia’s stature in the East. Russia lacks the economic largesse of other actors in this diplomatic game, but it has an abundance of energy, which ranks high on Kim’s wish list, and is most prepared to defy the sanctions regime. Putin knows that Russia could be marginalized if it does not cultivate ties to Kim Jong-un. If Trump’s retreat in conditions of seeming denuclearization is not reversed, Putin may put aside his deference to China on North Korea and not only intensify diplomacy with Kim, who is invited to Russia by year’s end, but also try to invigorate diplomacy with Moon, who could well be the guest of honor at the Eastern Economic Forum in September if Kim Jong-un decides not to go to Vladivostok and start serious triangular negotiations.
Abe has the weakest diplomatic hand unless Kim sees an early opening to wrest vast payments in lieu of reparations from him—an unlikely prospect when sanctions are still in place and Kim is immovable on the abductions issue. Abe Shinzo has played up the abduction issue, while he is obscuring the history issue with North Korea, as he grasps to make his conservative push for a “normal Japan” a reality through some sort of Asianism that omits further historical apologies. Abe’s diplomatic obsession with cozying up to Trump has proven a fiasco. Despite six years of wooing Putin and recent improved ties to Xi, Abe does not have a fallback diplomatic position. He and Moon have a poor relationship, and he has no prospect of overcoming the united front of China, Russia, South Korea, and, now, with new force, North Korea, on history against Japan.
National identities envision Northeast Asia and the destiny of North Korea in strikingly different ways, as do geopolitical calculations. The latter are, arguably, more amenable to compromise as leaders weigh the costs and benefits of pragmatic diplomacy. Identity obsessions are not easy to reconcile. Xi has been punishing Seoul for daring to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) after his honeymoon with Park Geun-hye ended abruptly and shattered the Chinese narrative about her shifting to accept China’s centrality, culturally, historically, and politically. Moon has pulled out the “history card” with Japan with new intensity after Park had cut a deal on the “comfort women.” Putin refuses to seek common ground with Abe on their territorial dispute after a few years of leading Abe on. And Abe flaunts the abductee issue with North Korea as if this is the only handle that makes Japan relevant. Just in the past 2-3 years, leaders have intensified their focus on identity gaps.
Prospects for Diplomacy in the Remainder of 2018
Kim Jong-un is in hot demand. Meeting him personally has become the badge of relevance in diplomacy now. Trump gives every indication of wanting another meeting this year, presumably in Washington, as he basks in the spotlight the June spectacle in Singapore provided him. Putin is planning on at least one meeting, although a double-header in Moscow and Vladivostok would appear to be preferable. There is talk that Xi will travel to Pyongyang in the fall. Only Abe has no plans, although there has been speculation in the Japanese press that if he could get some progress on the abductee issue, he would not hesitate to visit Kim. Clearly, the center of diplomatic activity is Kim Jong-un. Trump shows scant interest in coordinating with U.S. allies. China has lost the centrality it enjoyed during the Six-Party Talks, and a revival of this format seems unlikely, given the Trump-Kim axis. Moon orchestrated the initial diplomacy between Kim and Trump, but talk of him going to Singapore proved to be idle chatter, and he is likely to hope in vain for a fallback role should Trump and Kim stumble in their negotiations.
Will Trump dictate the pace of reconciliation or its reversal with Kim Jong-un? The U.S. sanctions regime can exert an impact, but Trump’s assertion that the nuclear threat is over gives states a clear justification to withdraw their sanctions. Despite Abe’s frantic efforts to have Trump take Japan’s needs into account, Abe has been shunted aside and has to decide whether to continue to follow in Trump’s wake or look for a diplomatic alternative, as hard as that would be. Will Xi and Putin resume coordination on North Korea? Will Moon press to regain the initiative, eyeing ties with Putin or Xi as a pathway forward for at least some projects? Given Trump’s unilateral disregard for allies at the June 11 summit in Singapore and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s brusque press conference in Seoul just two days later as if nobody has the right to ask serious questions about the vague contents of the agreement that was reached, after Pompeo skipped even stopping to brief Abe’s cabinet on what transpired, Washington is unlikely to be the hub of diplomacy.
Trump is not likely to accept being sidelined on what is becoming his showcase foreign policy initiative. Dealing directly with Kim Jong-un, he may accelerate diplomacy with rewards for measures deemed to be part of the denuclearization process. As other leaders encourage Kim with their own national identity aspirations in mind, Trump would be inclined to exaggerate the progress he personally has achieved with his unique approach and encapsulate it in a narrative about “America First.” The special bond between Trump and Kim could be sustained even as Xi, Moon, and Putin cultivate their own personal relationships with Kim. Some may advise Trump to exercise restraint in order to keep up pressure for genuine denuclearization, but in Singapore, he threw such caution to the wind and will be tempted to do so again. Trump may substitute a vision of his indispensable leadership through personal ties with a dictator who is only complementary to him for a vision of U.S. national identity with broader resonance. Thus, the diplomatic whirlwind around Kim Jong-un unleashed first by Moon and then by Trump need not bypass Washington as it threatens to bypass Tokyo, but it would challenge the prevailing notions of U.S. national identity as it opens the door to the pursuit of other national identities.