The arrival in Beijing of a long, armoured North Korean train was as mysterious as it was sudden. Who could it be? Kim Jong-un hadn’t publicly left his country since he became leader in 2011, fearful perhaps of a military coup. The train itself, reminiscent of those favoured by the Bolsheviks, was strikingly similar to the one used by Kim Jong-il, the dictator’s father, who was reportedly afraid of flying.
There had been no sign that a visit was imminent. But then the photographs emerged, Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping shaking hands in front of their national flags. The message was as expected: We stand together and will proceed with the upcoming North Korea-South Korea negotiations as a team, as “lips and teeth” as both countries like to say of each other. But the background to the meeting was not: United States President Donald Trump may have set in motion events that could lead to a positive resolution of the North Korea nuclear crisis.
It is astonishing that we have reached this point — and that Trump appears to have been the man who achieved it. The president is not known for his foreign policy expertise and the nuclear issue is the modern-day incarnation of the Great Game, one of the most complex and longest-running crises in history. In the 1990s, an American official said it “felt like playing a multi-tiered chess game on overlapping boards”. While there are six states involved — the US, North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan — arrayed in two “teams”, everyone comes to the table with a different agenda, different objectives.
Take Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is known to have reached out to the North through interlocutors insisting that he wants to be at the table. But for Abe, the North Korea nuclear issue cannot be resolved without determining the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. For Russia, North Korea presents an opportunity. A long-term ally during the Cold War, it now plays the crisis like a poker player with few stakes in the game to gain best advantage for its position in Asia.
For China, the game has long been about history. Historically, the Korean nation has been a tributary state, and US involvement on the Asian mainland has felt like a foreign intrusion. At the most extreme, Beijing has sought to use the crisis to engineer a US removal from the peninsula; by the most benign reading, it merely seeks to maintain a safe buffer zone on its borders from any US-allied nation.
Trump could have drowned in this complexity like some of his predecessors, but instead he has shown an agility of purpose that has thrown the pieces in the air. The Kim-Xi meeting suggests movement in Beijing. The Chinese are desperate to avoid being cut out of the planned summit. Xi will have wanted to remind Kim who butters North Korea’s bread. Kim, meanwhile, will have wanted to ensure a defence commitment in case the talks are unsuccessful. After all, the Trump administration’s quiet movement of military assets to the region belies a serious determination to remove what they perceive to be a direct threat to the US mainland.
But while we should all be cautious about the long-term chances of a US-North Korea accord, what has been achieved so far is remarkable. Just months ago conflict seemed imminent. Now we will see the US and the North sitting down at the same table for the first time since 2012, and for the first time with an open agenda since 2007.
President Trump would not have accomplished this without the incredible diplomacy of the South’s President Moon Jae-in. Indeed, the US and the South have led a superb three-pronged campaign. They’ve stood firm on defence issues, with Trump raising the potential prospect of war by keeping military options on the table and moving assets in-theatre. Both men have adopted highly versatile approaches toward China, giving Xi respect and reassurance, while playing hardball on sanctions and pushing Beijing to accept a “maximum pressure” approach to the North. In turn, Xi and Kim have greeted the US-South overtures with apparent respect, and seem to be attempting to relieve tensions.
One only hopes they succeed. For if the negotiations do fail, we’ll have an unimaginable disaster on our hands in East Asia, and right at the heart of the global economy.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Dr John Hemmings is director of the Asia Studies Centre at The Henry Jackson Society, a transatlantic think tank based in London.