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The Trump-Kim summit and its aftermath - Thitinan Pongsudhirak


The unprecedented and dramatic summit meeting between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un, the current leaders of the United States and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (otherwise known as North Korea), will go down in history as another case of "better the devil you know than the devil you don't". Since the Korean War stopped without a permanent truce in 1953, the world has become accustomed to the North Korean regime as a menace to regional peace and stability with ominous global ramifications because of its nuclear weapons.

The Trump-Kim summit has changed all that -- for better and for worse. It also has closed the last chapter of the ideologically driven Cold War that consumed the second half of the 20th century. What happens going forward is likely to be a fluid sea change on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia's security environment more broadly, with implications for relations among the major powers in Asia.

While the Trump-Kim meeting has been widely interpreted, that it took place at all is a remarkable achievement for all sides involved. For Singapore, as the venue and host, it was a diplomatic coup, stamping the island-state's claim as a global peacemaker, a "Geneva of the East" of sorts, as one of its leading public intellectuals put it. But Singapore was the chosen location for reasons that had nothing to do with its role as the current chair of Asean. What was good for Singapore in this case hardly had positive spill-over for Asean.

For Mr Trump, the summit results have not been portrayed favourably because he is more or less despised the world over outside his strong base in the American electorate. Many have said the summit amounted to little. Others have insinuated that Mr Trump was duped by Mr Kim. The latter, from a dictatorship seen as a global outcast, got equal treatment from the leader of the world's preeminent superpower. For Mr Kim, it was a global coming out party with immediate benefits and concrete concessions yet to be determined.

Because he is such a serial rules-breaker while a leading newsmaker at the same time, Mr Trump cannot win vis-a-vis the global partisanship against his blustery style of leadership and disrespect for established rules and norms. Yet his administration has managed to bring a pariah regime into the open. Several implications will now be played out.

First, it is still unclear what "denuclearisation" means for both sides, a point noted by many. Obviously, North Korea is the nuclear party on the Korean Peninsula. Thus denuclearisation must mean the elimination of North Korea's nuclear programme in a "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement," known as "CVID". But this would not make sense for the Kim regime. Why should North Korea get rid of its nuclear weapons when they are its chief bargaining tool and security guarantee?

What "denuclearisation" must mean to Pyongyang likely includes a Korean Peninsula devoid of a US military presence. The US is the dominant nuclear power, and its security guarantee for South Korea implicitly covers all available military capabilities.

Shedding more light on the knotty issue of denuclearisation is the 27 April 2018 Panmunjom Declaration between North and South Korea, the Trump-Kim joint statement upholds and centres on the watershed agreement between North and South Korea. This means that the US is now bound to follow the stipulations between North and South Korea, which guide the Trump-Kim summit statement.

It would be a profound development if denuclearisation leads to US military withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula. This would allow the two Koreas to cultivate long-term relations, perhaps including reunification. China would gain if US military bases so close to its homeland are removed. North Korea would be more secure, although the "verifiable" component of the agreement may be a sticking point. Once the US starts leaving, it will have less leverage to verify or insist on other demands.

For South Korea, this is a huge and calculated gamble. For successive generations, South Koreans have had to pay an incalculable price and make untold sacrifices to face up to North Korea's constant threats and intimidation. The South Koreans will likely see the Trump-Kim statement and its Panmunjom Declaration reaffirmation as a worthwhile risk.

For Japan, any US military retreat from Northeast Asia will bode ill for its security considerations. Japan has been mulling its own defence build-up for years, and what happens now on the Korean Peninsula may well embolden hawkish Japanese security planners to bite the bullet and beef up their own defence capabilities irrespective of US intentions and commitments.

Like China, Russia would gain from less of a US military presence in South Korea. Friendlier inter-Korea relations will be a boon for Russian economic development. The changing Northeast Asian geopolitical equation would likely boost trade and development as well as infrastructure on the Eurasian landmass centring on China and Russia.

Moreover, North Korea will likely insist on a compensated reciprocity. Mr Trump already has conceded suspending US military drills with South Korea. Other economic and aid measures for North Korea will likely be forthcoming. This timetable of mutual concessions and benefits will be crucial, and any reneging could derail what has been achieved.

For Thailand and its neighbourhood, the ideal would have been for Asean to be the broker and venue for the summit. For more than two decades, Asean has taken pride in counting North Korea as a member of the Asean Regional Forum. But now the most profound geopolitical shift on the Korean Peninsula has taken place with Asean as a mere bystander, thereby challenging Asean's much vaunted "centrality" and "convener" role in regional peace and stability.

Asean and Thailand within it have to be watchful. What goes on in Northeast Asia will have an impact on Southeast Asia. If the US is less reliable, Japan may have to step up while China towers over the rest and the Korean Peninsula transforms into a new state entity. It would be a geopolitical shift that bears downside risks more than upside gains for Thailand and Southeast Asia.