THE SINGAPORE SUMMIT between US President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un was a quick-fire and highly choreographed affair, genuinely historic in just happening, but long on symbolism and short on substance.
It may turn out to provide the basis for the eventual denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, though an equally long-term success would be the integration of North Korea into the international order as a nuclear power that played by international rules and norms.
Alternatively, it may all fall apart in time, as history provides some precedent.
But potentially it is a ‘reset moment’, although this Bystander is not alone in having no idea what Kim’s long-term game is.
For now, China will be pretty happy with where things stand. Kim has given nothing away that would concern Beijing. Meanwhile, the US president has tacitly followed the ‘suspension for suspension’ approach Beijing suggested all along once it was clear that the dormant six-party talks framework was going to be replaced by bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
Trump’s statements at a post-meeting press conference that the US would suspend its joint military exercises with South Korea and that the president would like US troops to leave the peninsula eventually (neither of which proposal was in the statement the two leaders signed at their meeting) would have delighted China. Beijing has long wanted a scaled-down US military presence in the region.
So, too, would Trump’s promise of security guarantees for the North Korean regime — China wants no outcomes that lead to either the unification of the Koreas or the collapse of the Kim dynasty, either outcome of which risks putting US or US-allied troops on its Manchurian border.
It will, no doubt, take the occasion when it arises to remind Seoul that Trump considered the joint exercises, or ‘war games’ as he called them, too expensive. From there, it will not be too far a stretch to put the idea in Seoul’s mind that the US president could have been suggesting that South Korea would be too expensive to defend in general.
Senior US officials, alive to the broader security implications of that for Japan and in the South China Sea, were quick to row back on that.
Most importantly for Beijing, no detailed plan or process for managing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes was laid out at the summit. The only commitment was to hold follow-on summit implementation negotiations, led by U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and an unnamed ‘relevant high-level [North Korean] official’.
This opens the door for all the interested parties, especially China, to turn that into an international effort for what will necessarily be a detailed and painstaking process of inspection and verification if the US aim of ‘complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation’ is to be achieved. The considerable volume of regional diplomacy that has been underway for some months is, in a sense, preparation for that.
“A good beginning is half done,” a foreign ministry spokesman, said of the summit, adding that China wished to “support the two sides to implement the consensus reached by their two leaders, promote follow-up consultations, further consolidate and expand the achievements, and make the political settlement of the peninsula issue a sustainable and irreversible process”.
In other words, it wants a seat at the table. China has a pivotal role to play in as much as it has the critical hand on dialling up or dialling down the enforcement of international sanctions on North Korea.
Pompeo will visit Beijing on Thursday when Beijing’s ‘support’ will immediately be made available.