Published daily by the Lowy Institute

A primer for the Trump–Kim summit

How The Interpreter has followed a remarkable few months of on-again off-again diplomacy.

Photo: arcticpenguin/Flickr
Photo: arcticpenguin/Flickr

Barely six months ago, Australia’s debate on North Korea featured Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speculating about invoking the ANZUS treaty in case of war, and discussion on The Interpreter between Hugh White and Rob Ayson about what conflict with a nuclear-armed North Korea might mean.

How quickly times change.

Before we chart the on-off-on road to Tuesday’s remarkable summit in Singapore between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, the Lowy Institute’s Euan Graham offers an important reminder in his analysis Trump, Kim and the North Korean nuclear missile melodrama.

Like all totalitarian regimes, Graham writes, what North Korea craves is legitimacy:

Pyongyang needs to sustain an atmosphere of permanent crisis in order to justify its social and economic controls … the regime’s fundamental security concern is that ordinary North Koreans, once given the freedom of information and movement to choose which Korea to live in, will vote with their feet and move south, triggering the collapse of the state.

Yet it was in South Korea, site of the Winter Olympics in February, that the stage was set for this latest and extraordinary rapprochement between the rival neighbours. Khang Vu remained wary:

Pyongyang may also regard the Olympics as an occasion to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea … The current ‘Olympic truce’ is certainly a welcome start to a reduction of tension on the Peninsula after a turbulent year, but its significance depends much on Pyongyang’s sincerity.

And it is not only North and South Korea and the US, but also China that has much at stake. Frances Kitt examined Beijing’s aims in encouraging talks:

By supporting inter-Korean dialogue, China can drive a wedge in the South Korea–US alliance, increasing tension between Trump and Moon. By supporting Kim Jong-un’s olive branch to the South and Moon’s eagerness to engage, Beijing is also showing support for measures that could ease UN sanctions, reduce pressure on Pyongyang to denuclearise, and frustrate Washington’s strategy of ‘strategic strangulation’.

Japan’s interests also ran deep, as Dalin Hamilton observed:

A battle is underway between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in over their differing approaches to North Korea. They are competing to shape the attitudes of US President Donald Trump, and this contest has been a compelling sideshow at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

Australia was closely watching, too. Bec Strating:

For Australia, the issue of North Korea is important as a microcosm of tensions between the US and China.

Doubts about North Korea’s sincerity persisted, fuelled perhaps by images of brightly uniformed and choreographed cheerleaders at the Olympics. Katherine Mansted:

Korea watchers should know better than to be fooled by the latest page in the same old playbook of North Korean tactics. Because while North Korean cheerleaders dance in PyeongChang, officials in Pyongyang are orchestrating the final push for the regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile program.

Besides, promises to close down nuclear test sites ring a little hollow. Morris Jones:

Local geology has possibly been altered by this sequence of underground explosions, making the area unstable. The ability to stage further tests and keep the radioactive material sealed is now compromised.

Oh, and by the way, with all these international sanctions, how exactly does North Korea still make money? Justin Hastings on Sanction busting, North Korea–style:

Kim Jong-un needs hard currency to build his nuclear weapons and pay off his elite supporters, or at least to provide those supporters with business opportunities to make their own money.

Then one Friday in March came the surprise announcement of an impending summit between the men who had hurled the insults “Rocket Man” and “Dotard” at one another across the airways. Daniel Flitton:

It seems, to borrow the military phrase, a sudden escalation in peaceful possibilities.

Could a summit deliver? Andray Abrahamian:

As much as Washington worries that the North Koreans won’t negotiate in good faith, the North Koreans think the same of the US. And that idea is not without justification.

Could a summit amount to a big deal? Sam Roggeveen:

Trump ought to offer Kim a grand bargain: give up your ICBM program, and we will permanently withdraw our troops from South Korea.

Could the summit even agree on language? Edward Howell:

The meaning of denuclearisation is fraught. Washington and Seoul want denuclearisation of North Korea … Kim Jong-un wants denuclearisation of the entire Korean Peninsula.

Could the summit be derailed by a past deal? Casper Wuite:

The fate of Muammar Gaddafi – overthrown in an uprising and killed nearly seven months into a NATO-led military operation – as well as the recent tearing up of the Iran deal by the US may do little to assure the North Koreans.

Wait. The summit is cancelled. Euan Graham:

The gulf of expectation and mistrust separating the US and North Korea, long apparent to seasoned observers, has become glaringly obvious in recent weeks.

No, the summit back on again? Sam Roggeveen:

Perhaps all we will get from the Singapore summit is an in-principle deal that will not commit either side to anything, but which may be the catalyst for more substantive talks at a lower level. At the very least, a result like that would lower the temperature of the relationship and thus reduce the chances of war.

Meanwhile, South Korea and North Korea forged ahead with historic talks alone, full of symbolic gestures. Khang Vu:

The two Korean leaders marked the achievements of the summit by planting a sapling from a pine tree that was originally planted in 1953, the year the Korean Armistice was signed. The soil of the pine tree was taken from Korea’s northernmost Mount Baekdu and southernmost Mount Halla and the water was extracted from Pyongyang’s Taedong River and Seoul’s Han River.

In the end, long-time contributor Robert Kelly has persistent doubts:

Moon Jae-in is putting tremendous faith in a sudden conversion of Kim Jong-un to better behaviour. This reflects South Korea’s remarkable optimism about the current summitry … Perhaps Moon is right; perhaps he sees something the rest of us do not. But I worry that Moon may push to continue to the process with North Korea long after South Korea’s partners start to feel it is more of the same – endless talk with no clear resolution.

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