It became all too meteoric. First, the North Korean missile test on 27 November 2017, proving in theory, that Pyongyang could nuke Washington, DC and most of the US mainland. Then came the historic Korean summit five months later. Finally, in June 2018, the world’s most powerful cop, Donald Trump, and the world’s most feared villain, Kim Jong-un, would meet in Singapore. The buzz of Noble Peace Prizes abounded.
The policy turn in Pyongyang earlier this year will long remain the subject of speculation. What were the motives? Was it a Chinese plot to lure South Korea out of the US’s circle of allies by offering Seoul an ‘Asian solution’ to the 70-year conflict, effectively sidelining the US? Or was it a North Korean attempt to decrease dependence on their rich and paternalising Chinese neighbour by kick-starting an in-house Korean peace process on the peninsula? Perhaps a mix of both? And what about Russia’s role? Moscow never denied the good relationship between Russian and North Korean diplomats. Plus, Russia and China have a common interest to push back US influence along the Western Pacific rim. They will not miss out on any chance to convince Seoul that South Korea’s future will be safer in the Asian family of nations than at the side of a trigger-happy Western superpower.
While the successful North Korean missile test created the opportunity for a peace initiative from Pyongyang, and while Seoul has a clear and objective interest in peace, the one player who finally calls the shots is the United States. Should the North have produced a better peace offer earlier, before showing its capability to hit the US mainland? Probably so. There might have been a chance to soften tensions, still sustaining North Korea’s existence, before the US had to perceive Pyongyang’s military program as a national threat. Now that it is evident, the US reaction is clear. No one in the White House, be it Donald Trump or a president of more mainstream design, can tolerate a nuclear newbie to stock weapons capable of destroying mainland US territory. That in mind, the conclusion is that the young North Korean leader got carried away by his ambition to meet the US at eye level – doubtlessly above his station.
The US insists that Pyongyang destroys its complete nuclear arsenal, lock, stock, and barrel – not only some entrances to an otherwise incapacitated underground testing facility. A compromise is unlikely, at least in the near term.
The Singapore meeting was the most Kim could ever expect. Did he sense that the whole event wasn’t much more than a personal gesture by Donald Trump, who is possibly impressed by the brazen tactics of the young rogue state leader? That Trump would have confronted him with the sobering truth in Singapore – the fact that Kim could in no way expect peace on the peninsula, the lifting of sanctions and prosperity for his country as long as there is a single ounce of enriched uranium in his vaults? Not to mention Pyongyang’s demands for the removal of the US’s nuclear arsenal – submarines, planes, vessels, and missiles – from within reach of North Korea.
Formally the statements by the North Korean government, first by the Great Leader himself, then last Wednesday by the influential Choe Son-hui, Vice Minister at Pyongyang’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, were targeted at US Vice President Mike Pence for his reiteration of US denuclearisation demands. In fact, their obvious hostility only anticipated the failure of the Singapore talks. As soon as Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, had presented his maximalist ‘denuclearisation’ objective, it was clear to Pyongyang that Kim, if he ever went to Singapore, would return empty-handed. To provoke the cancellation that Trump duly delivered was a Korean face-saving measure.
It goes without saying that Kim lost face anyway. Having overplayed his hand by proving his capability to hit the mainland US, thus threatening to unravel the regional security architecture, the peace initiative was a result of Chinese pressure. In Beijing, two objectives dominate foreign policy: regional stability and pushing back US influence. Kim’s two trips to China within a few weeks, his first foreign trips since taking the helm in 2011, underline the Chinese role in the endeavor.
Now Trump has predictably cut it all short. With their statements on Iran and Korea, his ‘war cabinet’ made it clear that the US will fight their geopolitical decline. Washington is set to retain its position as hegemon and arbiter in the Middle East, Europe, and the Far East. A new, equally tough stance on Ukraine may follow during the World Cup in Russia a few weeks from now. Regardless of what local politicians prefer, the US is going to defend its bridgeheads on the Eurasian double-continent. Any hopes for lasting détente, peace dividends, and an end of history, harboured in the 1990s, are obsolete.
Under the circumstances, chances for global dialogue and compromise seem smaller than in previous years. But on the other hand, the US’s bold and bullying declarations – Pompeo’s 12-demands catalogue to Tehran reminded some observers of the 1914 Hapsburg ultimatum to Serbia – may serve as wake-up calls. The regions concerned – the Eurasian ‘bridgeheads; in Europe, Japan, and South Korea – cannot but ask themselves whether they want their territories to become battlefields for the US’s geopolitical rivalries.
Eurasian politicians find themselves face to face with a sincere challenge. Squeezed between mighty rivals with little regard for local design, they must struggle to soften tensions, deescalate, and mediate. Just an example: Taking sides, as was the case with Western Europe during the Cold War and after, becomes a recipe of the past. European-Russian rapprochement with the objective to be heard if not in Washington, then at least in Moscow, will soon be a necessity. Dialogue returns through the back door. The same concerns the exchange between the two Koreas. Differences in world views, values, and societal order systems become secondary when survival is at stake.