North Korea Has the Upper Hand in Negotiations with Trump


North Korea’s Kim Jong-un met with Donald Trump of the United States in Singapore. This was the first meeting of the heads of government of these two countries. The United States has been at war with North Korea since 1950. Three years into that war, which destroyed most of the infrastructure in North Korea, the two countries—and South Korea—agreed to a halt in the active fighting. But the war did not end. It remains intact. A massive military deployment by the United States at the edge of North Korea maintains the fear inside the Korean Peninsula of annihilation. This is what makes the summit between Kim and Trump so important. Threats of war are now at a low point.


North Korea’s Kim arrived in Singapore on an Air China flight. This is significant. It was China that guaranteed the safety and security of Kim. Heads of government of North Korea had previously only been to fraternal countries—whether China or the USSR. China’s role in this summit guaranteed that Kim would be treated with respect. The government of Singapore—which recognizes both North Korea and the United States—hosted Kim and brokered the outlines of the conversation. It is important to pay attention to the Chinese context for these discussions.

China has long urged North Korea to offer an olive branch to South Korea and to the United States. What China fears more than anything is a precipitous collapse of North Korea, whether through war with the United States and South Korea or through the impact of the cruel sanctions regime forced on North Korea by the United States. Such a collapse would bring the United States to the Chinese border. North Korea has provided a buffer between the thousands of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and China. The maintenance of North Korea is essential to China’s security concerns.

The United States might have the world’s largest military, but it is certainly not dictating the terms to North Korea in these negotiations. The situation here is not as it was with East Germany (the DDR) in the 1980s. Then, the USSR was near collapse and the leadership of the DDR was unable to put forward a coherent plan for the reunification of Germany that did not result in the erasure of the DDR. That reunification was truly a surrender. It meant that the new Germany joined NATO, and that the Western military alliance crept closer and closer to the Russian border.

The Chinese authorities know this history well. They are aware that they are far stronger than the USSR in the 1980s and that they will have an active role in the talks between North and South Korea as well as with the United States. Their absence from the table itself should not be misread to mean that the Chinese are not whispering into Kim’s ear.

Let’s Make a Deal

Kim and Trump spent time together discussing the various important issues on the table—namely, North Korean fears of an attack by the United States and North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Both these issues were addressed in the brief statement signed by the two men and released by the two sides. They affirmed the essence of the Panmunjom Declaration drafted by the North’s Kim and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in on April 27, 2018.

  1. Security Guarantees. The United States acknowledged the sovereignty and security of North Korea. This means that the United States—effectively—agreed not to attack North Korea. The sentence on a security guarantee could also be read to mean that the United States will not undermine the peace negotiations between North and South Korea. It will allow South Korea to proceed with serious peace negotiations that would have to include the removal of substantial U.S. bases from the Korean Peninsula and to downscale the U.S.-South Korean military exercises. These are two key demands that the Chinese have also made, showing how the Chinese will gain if these indeed come into effect. That Trump has agreed to downgrade the military exercise is a major concession from the United States.

  1. Denuclearization. The statement mentioned denuclearization more than once. It noted that the entire Korean Peninsula should be free of nuclear weapons. What this means is that the United States will have to remove all nuclear weapons from the peninsula. It is important to mention that North Korea has held this position since 1992. The wording is identical. Since such statements leave the details to another day, it is not clear what North Korea has decided to do at this time. Would it freeze its nuclear weapons program? Would it decommission its nuclear weapons program? Would it destroy its arsenal or merely shift it across the Chinese border? Each of these questions is unanswered. North Korea and China know that when Libya renounced its nuclear weapons program, it signed the death warrant for the Libyan government. North Korea will not tread the Libyan road.

A summit such as this rarely offers the full plan for the way forward. The importance of this summit is merely that it happened. Trump, who has disoriented his G7 allies during their recent summit in Canada, now feels the need to do something successful. He is a man driven by his ego. The summit with North Korea shows him as a man of action, a man willing to buck decades of inaction to—as he likes to put it—“make a deal.” But this ‘deal’ has little to do with Trump or his team.

North Korea, backed by China, has written the timetable for these negotiations. A year ago, it appeared as if North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests would egg the Trump administration into a dangerous military confrontation. Trump even threatened to devastate the peninsula. But he did not have an ally in the newly elected South Korean leader—Moon Jae-in—who came to power when the conservatives floundered in corruption scandals. Moon, a calm and sincere person, held fast to his commitments to peace despite the North Korean missile and nuclear tests and the belligerence of the Trump administration. Out of nowhere, it seemed, Kim inaugurated the “Olympics diplomacy.” It is what drew the two Koreas together and outflanked the United States. Trump now had to follow the tune being hummed by Moon and Kim.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement is important. He said that it is significant that Kim and Trump met to “have an equal conversation.” This, he said, “is creating a new history.” So it is.

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