Can Donald Trump’s idiosyncratic presidential style deliver an outcome that has eluded a generation of presidents from Eisenhower to Obama? The outcome in question refers to the Korean Peninsula and the formal ending of hostilities between North and South Korea and their respective allies. While the prospect of a peace treaty involving the two Koreas might seem enticing, there are formidable obstacles to be negotiated.
In a tweet in mid-April, Trump announced that CIA director and Secretary of State nominee, Mike Pompeo, visited North Korea and met with Kim Jong Un. Trump claimed there was a ‘good relationship’ between the two sides and that the denuclearisation of North Korea was possible. But a character-limited tweet was never going to convey, with any clarity or detail, how the two were going to be tethered to one another.
Mike Pompeo met with Kim Jong Un in North Korea last week. Meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed. Details of Summit are being worked out now. Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 18, 2018
An unprecedented US-North Korean summit was only mooted in March, and a face-to-face meeting involving Trump and Kim was scheduled for 12 June. Trump originally revealed that five locations for the meeting were under consideration. Where diplomacy occurs is important – always. The United States and North and South Korea were never options. Journalists speculated that the list might include some combination of the following: the DMZ, Beijing, Stockholm, Geneva and/or somewhere in international waters. In the end, the city-state of Singapore was chosen for the summit, later cancelled last week (UPDATE: Now back on).
The secret Pompeo visit is significant, undoubtedly. The US has no formal diplomatic relationship with North Korea. The last time a senior member of any administration visited was in the final months of the Clinton administration. By the early 2000s, after initial optimism that relations between the North and South might be improving under the ‘sunshine policy’, things changed radically for the worse. In January 2002, President George W Bush declared that an ‘axis of evil’ including Iran, Iraq and North Korea imperilled the security of the world. All three were characterised as malevolent and mendacious. Iraq was invaded, Iran and North Korea were isolated and sanctioned in the ensuing War on Terror.
North Korea’s isolation from the US has never been absolute. Former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman’s multiple trips to North Korea remind us that total isolation rarely exists. Rodman was credited with helping to secure the release of US missionary Kenneth Bae in 2014. Kim and Rodman connected over a mutual love of basketball. There has also been a degree of back-channel contact between the two countries, which no one is that eager to publicise.
Any diplomatic initiative involving North Korea is challenging because it attracts opprobrium for its human rights violations and nuclear weapons development. China is its only formal ally, but Russia has an economic relationship with the country as well. Russia supported a repeat of sanctions against North Korea in 2017 but the impact of sanctions affects its trading relationship and regional economy. Thousands of North Korean migrant workers are to be found in the Russian Far East.
Trump’s desire to rewrite diplomatic history and secure a ‘deal’ with North Korea is generating both excitement and anxiety. Japan’s leader, Shinzo Abe, is concerned that any reconciliation plan might downgrade the US-Japan relationship that Prime Minister Abe is working hard to cultivate. The 2018 Winter Olympics hosted by South Korea gave opportunities for the North to reach out to other regional players including China and South Korea.
The new US national security adviser, John Bolton, shares Japanese suspicion of North Korea’s good faith when it comes to any kind of rapprochement. Abe wants Trump to address the fate of captured Japanese and American prisoners held in North Korea.
Twitter talk of a possible summit was carefully timed. In late April, the respective presidents of North and South Korea met in a highly publicised summit. The ending of formal hostilities following this high-level meeting might only embolden Trump. On the other hand, Trump has always made it clear he might walk away from any summit, but a ‘deal’ involving the lifting of sanctions in return for a peace treaty which acknowledged the existence of North Korea and additional economic support might prove very tempting to him. It would prove that his diplomatic style was more effective when dealing with difficult actors such as China, Russia and North Korea.
South Korea and Japan have had to live in the shadow of North Korean missile and nuclear testing. China and Russia don’t want economic and political collapse on their proverbial doorstep. Further afield, Iran would be worried by any dramatic change, especially if it then freed Trump to concentrate his energies on Tehran. There is a great deal at stake here both for East Asia and elsewhere.
This was published in the June 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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