The peace negotiations on the Korean Peninsula remain fragile and neither the USA or the DPRK trusts the other. Neither side has been specific about what they will accept and the question remains what it has always been. What does Kim want in return for what he is willing to give and what is Trump willing to give for what he wants? Trumps threat to pull out of the meeting and Kim’s equally bellicose talk of war don’t help matters but neither is likely to be stupid enough to put their nukes where their mouth is. The role of China will be vital both in protecting its own interests and as a possible guarantor of DPRK security. The ROK takes a positive and realistic approach but tends to be overshadowed by the others. Australia has vital interests in this process but is not a serious player. This article looks at the options and factors involved.
Both Kim and Trump have said a lot about negotiations but what matters is what they are not saying. The bottom line remains as it has always been. The terms used publicly sound grand but are not defined and tell us very little. We now have the exchange of words begun by Kim’s attack on the US/ROK military exercises and Trumps waffling about what might or might not happen. Trump now says he will not go to the meeting and does not rule out military action while Kim has said bring it on. Kim’s rhetoric is predictable but we don’t know from one day to the next what Trump will say.. Let us examine the possibilities.
There are two possible explanations for Kim’s outburst. One is that he was genuinely upset by Trump’s bellicose statements combined with the ill-timed military exercises and his statement was a reaction which would not otherwise have been made. The second is that he always planned something like this and was just looking for a handle to hang it on. Certainly Trump’s insensitivity is enough to upset the calmest of people but on the other hand the DPRK has a long history of playing these sorts of games so either is possible or perhaps some combination of the two could be envisaged. The history of DPRK negotiating tactics makes it clear that we cannot trust anything they say.
So what does the USA want? Again, there are two possibilities. One is that Trump is playing to a domestic audience and doesn’t really understand or even care what he is doing internationally. Insofar as he has a foreign policy, it is based on the assumption that the USA has a right to rule because of its power and superior morality. The second is that John Bolton and others who don’t want the negotiations to succeed are pushing Trump into saying things which will ensure they fail so that a military option becomes the only one. I would like to think that this second conspiracy theory is over the top but Iraq and Afghanistan make me wonder whether it is. However, Trump’s chopping and changing and bombast make it possible that the first is the right explanation. The latest Trump outburst has the mark of Bolton on it but what will he say tomorrow? The American history of welching on treaties and agreements as exemplified in Trump on Iran suggest we cannot trust what the Americans say either.
So we are faced with two protagonists who cannot be trusted to keep their word neither of whom has defined clearly what they want to come out of the talks. Trump has talked vaguely about helping the DPRK to be secure and get rich under American tutelage but what does this mean in practice? Kim has observed that if Saddam Hussein had had nuclear weapons he would still be there. The case of Libya has been thrown around. If Kim really gives up his nuclear potential what can the USA give that will satisfy him that his country and his job remain secure? Will he demand a total pull out of American forces on the peninsula and would Trump give that? Even then, US forces in Japan and at sea remain within easy striking distance of the DPRK. The Iran experience must give him doubts abut the reliability of even an international agreement. Could China provide the necessary guarantee as a credible protector against US aggression? This might be one way to go. US economic aid is a two edged sword. It might help the economy but would it weaken the position of President Kim?
President Moon is trying valiantly to find a way of peacefully getting economic change in the DPRK which might at least improve the economy and good relations between North and South. Kim may be interested in the Vietnamese and Chinese models but opening up the DPRK to outside influences could well weaken his position. On the other hand, both China and Vietnam have managed to allow economic liberalisation without giving up the political power of the Party so maybe the DPRK could do the same? Looking to the distant future, reunification would make the German experience look easy and is not something to be faced now.
For the moment we can only wait and see. Progress is by no means assured. The whole process could collapse with each side blaming the other which would get us back to where we started and the latest outbursts by both leaders suggest this may be the more likely outcome. No doubt Mr Bolton would be urging military action but even Trump should be able to see the impossibility of that. The initial euphoria was never justified but there remains a faint hope that something could come out of this process if both sides want it. The ROK is of course vitally interested and President Moon has been the most sensible of all the parties involved. And that leaves China which is the wild card. Whatever the outcome or lack thereof, it was always worth a try.
If anything is going to be achieved, China will have to be a major part of it. China has an interest in a viable DPRK which does not threaten Chinese interests and has long seen it as a buffer state. Would the USA accept China as a guarantor of DPRK security and how would this be presented? We get back to the problem of trust. However, as General Macarthur found out, China will protect its interests. So far the Chinese public statements have been limited but private talks with Kim suggest that the Chinese are very much involved and intend to be a major factor in the whole process. Questions that remain unanswered are how much influence China has on the DPRK, what the DPRK will accept from China and what the USA and China will accept from one another?
So where does all this leave Australia? We have vital interests in a peaceful region and strong economic interests in the ROK. As one of the UN forces in the Korean War we are bound by the terms of the Armistice to aid the ROK if it is attacked. However, our interests are not matched by our influence. We are not a serious player in this process. As Secretary Pompeo made clear in his recent statement on Iran, Australia is expected to toe the US foreign policy line and is not terribly interested in our views. We will no doubt urge all parties to act cooperatively and sensibly but none of them will be listening. We can and should try to get regional countries to work together on this issue but it is hard to see what can be done by the little fish. We have a good relationship with the ROK, a close if somewhat subservient relationship with the USA and a slightly rocky relationship with China but we are not a player in this game.
So if you want to know what will happen now, consult an astrologer. You will get as clear an answer as anyone else can give you. We live in interesting times.
Cavan Hogue is a retired Australian diplomat who was Alternate Delegate on UNCURK from 1960-62 and as head of the Asia Division in DFAT visited Korea for official talks and negotiations in 1990-91. He was the contact point with the DPRK Ambassador in Bangkok in 1995-98 when Australia after the DPRK expelled Australian diplomats from Pyongyang. He also took an interest in Korean matters while Ambassador in Moscow and various Asian postings.