Zhiqun Zhu is professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He is currently visiting the Center for the History of Global Development at Shanghai University.
By all indications, the Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore went very well, with President Donald Trump claiming it the start of an “excellent relationship.”
But the celebration will be short-lived; what lies ahead will be more challenging. Very soon, it will become clear once again that without co-operation from others – particularly China and South Korea – the United States cannot achieve denuclearization of North Korea
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Global attention before and after the summit has focused on whether it is a success or failure, with little understanding of its significance and the grave challenges ahead. The handshakes alone will remain historic. This is just the first step in the long march toward lasting peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula – one must learn to walk before running. Mr. Trump has narrowly focused on North Korea’s denuclearization, without much interest in what takes place next. Empty rhetoric such as “great things will happen to North Korea” does nothing to help the process. Does the United States have any specific plan to help a postnuclear North Korea? The U.S. objective of complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID) should be replaced by co-operative, verifiable, irreversible demilitarization and development (CVIDD) of the Korean Peninsula.
This year’s developments on the Korean Peninsula suggest that international co-operation will be the key to solving the North Korea problem. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un started 2018 with a very modest hope in his New Year’s address that North Korea could participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. South Korean President Moon Jae-in immediately embraced the idea. North Korea not only participated in the Olympics, but their ice hockey players also joined their South Korean counterparts and competed as a unified Korean team. Both Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon must be commended for restarting the reconciliation process and reigniting the hope of a peaceful and unified Korean Peninsula.
Before the Trump-Kim summit, Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim met twice at Panmunjom, outlining plans to move forward. Mr. Kim also visited China twice, repairing the strained relationship with Chinese leaders and winning President Xi Jinping’s backing before heading to Singapore. The Singapore government graciously agreed to host the summit and chip in to cover Kim’s travel expenses while China provided transportation for Mr. Kim. The Singapore summit would not have taken place without the months-long preparatory work that involved multiple countries.
In Kim’s view, he went to the Singapore meeting from a position of strength, since North Korea is already a nuclear state, and Mr. Trump’s agreement to meet is a tacit acceptance of its nuclear status. It will be important to help North Korea denuclearize gracefully and in a respectful manner. Security guarantees must be provided to North Korea, preferably by China, given the deep distrust between the United States and North Korea, and America’s overwhelming military advantage over North Korea.
Different from his father and grandfather, Mr. Kim has focused on both military development and economic growth since gaining power in 2011. His “byungjin” policy is quietly and slowly changing North Korea. Both peace and development are needed on the Korean Peninsula and, as the denuclearization process begins, relevant countries must be prepared to work together to help integrate North Korea into East Asia’s dynamic economic development.
China has begun to normalize relations with North Korea. After a hiatus of more than six months, China’s flag carrier Air China resumed direct flights between Beijing and Pyongyang before the Trump-Kim meeting. As Mr. Trump’s America retreats from global leadership, China can play a positive role by incorporating North Korea into its Belt and Road Initiative and by welcoming North Korea into the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Other regional groups and trade clubs such as Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnerships (RCEP) should also open their doors to North Korea.
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Right before the Trump-Kim summit, two other major gatherings of world leaders took place in China and Canada, respectively. The SCO and Group of 7 summits presented a sharp contrast of the roles of China and the United States in today’s world. As the host of this year’s SCO summit in Qingdao, Mr. Xi hammered home the themes of co-operation and a community of common destiny. In Quebec, Mr. Trump had a tense and confrontational meeting with his G7 counterparts, skipping discussions on climate change and insulting his allies. China and the United States are clearly not on the same wavelength in their approaches to foreign policy. Perhaps it is time for Mr. Trump, Mr. Xi and other leaders in the region to sit down and map out a viable plan for East Asia’s future together.