Of the risks attendant on the summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim Jung-un, the most grave is that the geopolitical consequences will be ignored.
Perhaps, in private, the US and North Korea now have a mutual understanding of denuclearisation. The path towards complete, verifiable, and irreversible removal of nuclear weapons may have been settled in far more detail in the discussions in Panmunjom, Washington and Singapore than has been revealed.
The North Koreans may have received security assurances, including cessation of joint military exercises in South Korea and even eventual withdrawal of the US military presence from the peninsula, and possibly Japan as well. Behind closed doors the North may have agreed in-principle to the make-up of an international inspection regime to verify the destruction and dismantling of their nuclear infrastructure and stockpile, and to a timetable. Promises of foreign investment, commercial technology transfers, trade arrangements, and sponsorship of North Korean integration into the global institutions may have sweetened the pot.
However, If the deal involves a treaty level agreement then the US Administration may have a challenge getting it through Congress, even if the Republicans retain the Senate in the mid-terms. An arrangement that sees even a partial drawdown of the US military in Northeast Asia is likely to be seen as unacceptably weakening US security and betraying allies.
US firms or investment companies are unlikely to rush into North Korea while it retains its police state and the repressive institutions of a communist dictatorship, maintains its appalling human rights record, and restricts freedom of movement on the peninsula. Moreover, US firms that might think to take advantage of low-wage workers in North Korea will be reluctant to run afoul of the America First policies of the Administration.
Chairman Kim does not hold his power through any sort of mandate from the people. North Korea is ruled by a ruthless hereditary dictatorship that runs the closest thing to a totalitarian state still remaining. The problem he faces in cashing in on the so-called opportunities President Trump dangled before him is the same one Walter Ulbricht faced in East Germany.
Were the North Koreans to relax conditions on the border with South Korea its citizens would be tempted by the economic prosperity and personal freedom in the South. They could be expected to flood across the border in a similar manner to the way which East Germans flooded into the West before the wall went up. It was the young, able, educated and talented that fled from East to West Germany.
The reality is that it probably won’t be the US or South Korea or Japan that are the engines for economic rejuvenation in North Korea after denuclearisation occurs and sanctions are lifted—it will be primarily China, with some involvement from Russia and Central Asian nations. In all likelihood China will offer to bring North Korea into its collective BRI and provide it with infrastructure investment, managerial expertise, and trade opportunities.
This not just because China and Russia have strong historical ties with North Korea. Or because of their policy of non-inference in the internal affairs of other states; although this will be an important factor for North Korea. Closer economic integration with liberal democracies would inevitably bring strong pressures to improve political freedoms, allow freedom of the press, and enhance rule of law. All of which Kim would see as undermining the regime. For China the collapse of the regime and initial chaos followed by a less compliant possibly hostile neighbour on its border would also be a serious concern.
China and Russia will see the opportunity to strengthen their strategic positions in North Asia. China places a high priority on defending its maritime approaches. However, the presence of major powers in the East China Sea—US, South Korea, and Japan, and the militarily capable Taiwan—mean security there presents a more complex challenge than the South China Sea where it has managed to militarise atolls. A US drawdown in Northeast Asia would be a big plus for China.
Three of China’s four busiest ports face on to the East China Sea—Shanghai, Ningbo, and Qingdao—and geographically the Korean Peninsula partially encircles them. The peninsula also forms the boundary of the Yellow Sea (or northern East China Sea) which provides access to Beijing. An effectively neutral Korean Peninsula that China could dominate has great strategic significance. More directly, were China to be able to access or even home port naval assets on the east coast of North Korea, adjacent to the Sea of Japan, it would facilitate growing maritime cooperation with Russia and complicate greatly Japanese defence planning.
If the denuclearisation push fails, US prestige in the region will be diminished and it will have burned up much of its political capital with allies. The prospect of war would then hang over the Peninsula foreshadowing a potential total strategic disaster. If denuclearisation goes ahead successfully, the lifting of sanctions and re-entry of North Korea into international trade and investment will provide China with the opportunity to dominate the Peninsula and shore up its strategic position.
Elimination of the nuclear threat from North Korea is crucial for the region. But, in the longer term, the successful achievement of that goal could see the region slip more under China’s strong influence.
Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.