Mr Shawn Ho, Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore to talk about this extraordinary international political event.
Shawn feels that the tough rhetoric coming out of both Washington and N. Korea is only a pre-summit negotiation ploy. “Both countries, N. Korea and the US seem to want to hold this summit and this is just part of the pre-summit negotiations where both sides are trying to figure out the other side’s position, and trying to gain some concessions ahead of the actual summit ahead of June 12th. …If they had wanted to cancel the summit they would have already done that quite some time ago. The fact that Mike Pompeo the US Secretary of State has visited Pyongyang twice, means that there is probably some kind of basic understanding, and along the way, if there had been future disagreements they wouldn’t have waited until now to cancel the summit.”
The disagreements that are coming to light at the moment seem to concern first and foremost different understanding of the word ‘denuclearisation.’ The N. Koreans do not seem to think that the term means getting rid of all their nuclear weapons, but the development of further weapons. Shawn explains: “There are two different definitions of what denuclearisation means. The North Korean and the US definitions are quite different form each other, at least based on the public statements that we have seen. At the same time, steps are being made by the South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was recently in Washington DC to try to narrow the gap of what the two parties mean by this word. …One goal of Moon’s trip would have been to give some kind of assurance to US senior officials that what Kim Jong-un has said to Moon Jae-in personally, privately, directly is perhaps of reassurance to the Americans…”
Kim Jong-un has already made two trips to China, before meeting with the S. Korean President and with President Trump. To a certain extent, Shawn plays down the importance of China as being the power broker in the negotiations. “N. Korea and China are bordering countries that share a unique history, and their relationship has at times been very good, in the past. In recent times perhaps not as good, but the fact that Kim Jong-un’s first overseas trip was to China, to Beijing to meet Xi Jinping, I think that says a lot about what China’s support and role is in this current issue. At the same time, it also came as a surprise to me that they had a second meeting relatively soon after the first one. In the North East of China, in Dalian. So this really shows that the Chinese and the North Koreans are talking a lot, at the highest levels, and probably the Chinese are giving some kind of reassurance to the North Koreans and suggestions perhaps how to deal with the Americans.”
Shawn says that the North Koreans will have to be given some kind of security assurances by America if they are to denuclearise. “I think Donald Trump has said that if you denuclearise, we will make sure that you carry on as the leader, in fact we will make you richer, and your people’s standard of living will improve. On the other hand, if the talks do not work out in the way that we hope that they do, then Donald Trump is also in a way saying that we will not rule out the possibility of a military option. …It was quite interesting for me to read that the Chinese foreign minister visited Washington, right on the heels of Moon Jae-in’s visit, and of course one key agenda of the Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit will be to talk about N. Korea, and also to reflect the Chinese interests and position. All of these things are happening very quickly, simultaneously and we are watching this all closely to see what the Chinese role will be on the Korean peninsula.”
The possibility of war between the US and N. Korea is discussed. Whether China would actually come to N. Korea’s aid if the summit fails and the US takes a military option is not clear. Shawn says: “The Chinese might come to N. Korea’s aid but we don’t really know how China might react in this day and age. …By nature of the fact that Donald Trump was a businessman, he was a real estate developer, and has been involved in all kinds of business negotiations, he is really showing his experience in making business deals and being a very tough person to deal with, pushing the other side to the edge, it’s who blinks first, who might give up more concessions, so I think that this trait is telling in recent events as well.”
Donald Trump has, however, as Shawn says, moved back from a very hawkish statement about the application of the Libya model by John Bolton. “Donald Trump himself apparently said that he has not been looking at the Libya model in regards to North Korea, and in fact he is looking at some other method or model, and he says that if Kim Jong-un were to agree to this, Kim Jong-un would be a very happy person, coming out with certain rewards as well. So Trump has distanced himself from John Bolton’s comments, indicating that war is not that much of an option yet at this stage.”
One could say that Kim Jong-un is to a certain extent actually already winning the information war, as he has already managed to make the world aware of, for example, the fact that the US stages military exercises every year in S. Korea. Shawn comments: “The Korean summit on the 27th was the first time that the international community really heard Kim Jong-un talking off the record and without a script, and that actually improved his image, even among South Koreans.” The North Koreans do seem to be doing quite well on the information front. Instead of inviting weapons experts to see and record the deconstruction of the nuclear testing site at Punggye-Ri in North Korea, journalists were invited. One could get the impressions that the North Koreans are handling the lead up to the summit very carefully.
This can be compared to the issuance of coins to commemorate the upcoming summit in the US, an act that could be taken as populistic. Shawn comments: “The White House was quick to distance itself from the issuance of the coins, and that the coins have little to do with official government policy.”
The final discussion of this program concerns the effect of a possible deal at the summit on American power in Asia in general, as is the possibility of even faster decline of American power than what we are already seeing if the summit is not successful, thus giving the N. Koreans another bargaining chip.
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