A Tale of Two Nuclear Deals: The China and Iran Factors Behind the Singapore Summit

Part I

Before the DPRK-US summit in Singapore, US President Donald Trump publicly had cancelled his bilaterally meeting with DPRK Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un. Whether this was bravado for the public or a negotiating tactic is unclear. What is clear is that the Trump Administration does not think or act in unison. Whether he is talking about Russia or Syria, US Vice-President Michael Pence has a record of contradicting or distorting the words of Donald Trump. North Korea is just one case.

Cancellation and Restoration of the DPRK-US Summit

Even when the US held war games in South Korea, everything seemed to be roughly on track until US Vice-President Michael Pence began making remarks. It started with comments made by US National Security Advisor John Bolton, who Trump choose on March 22, 2018 to replace H.R. McMaster as his national security advisor. Bolton, like Mike Pompeo, joined the Trump Administration due to his opposition to the US maintaining its legal commitments in the nuclear agreement with Iran, whereas H.R. McMaster was removed, like Rex Tillerson, because of his disagreements with Trump about the US keeping violating its commitment to the Iran nuclear deal. Moving on, Bolton told CBS News about the possibility of Washington using the “Libya model” for the verifiable disarming of North Korea on April 29, 2018.

Clearly misunderstanding that Bolton was talking about the 2003 deal research between the Libyans and the US and not the US-led 2011 war against Libya, Trump rejected Bolton’s “Libya model” on May 17, 2018 saying “we decimated that country” and then adding that the horrible fate suffered by Libya shows “what will take place if we don’t make a deal.” Showing even more witlessness, Mike Pence played on the comments of Bolton and Trump to threaten the North Koreans during a Fox News interview on May 21, 2018. Referring to Trump’s earlier comments, Vice-President Pence told Fox News that, as “a fact” of what was going to happen, “as the President made clear, this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong-Un doesn’t make a deal” with Washington. The irony should not escape one that Libya did negotiate with the US to end its nuclear program and still suffered regime change and was attacked by the US and its NATO allies. None of this was lost on an unamused Pyongyang, which has always used what happened to Libya to explain why it has not surrendered its rights to having a national nuclear weapons program.

Responding to Vice-President Pence’s threat against her country, North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Son-Hui called Mike Pence a “political dummy” who had no idea what he was talking about or any understanding of international diplomacy in an interview with the Korean Central News Agency on May 24, 2018. Choe correctly pointed out that North Korea and Libya were situationally incomparable. This was because Libya was starting a weapons program with the aim of developing nuclear weapons when it began negotiating with the US, while North Korea already has nuclear weapons. “I cannot suppress my surprise at such ignorant and stupid remarks gushing out from the mouth of” Vice-President Pence, she declared. In what was perhaps the most sensationalized part of her interview, Choe Son-Hui also told the Korean Central News Agency that if “the US will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behaviour of the United States.”

This chain of events resulted in Donald Trump cancelling his meeting with Kim Jong-Un in Singapore. Ironically this took place on the same day (May 24, 2018) that Pyongyang began demolishing the Punggye-Ri Nuclear Test Site as part of its decommissioning. Trump wrote a letter to Kim saying that “based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting. Therefore, please let this letter serve to represent that the Singapore summit, for the good of both parties, but the detriment of the world, will not take place.” Trump also added a veiled threat by saying the following: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.” The letter concludes with Trump telling Kim if “you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.”  Chairman Kim Jong-Un would respond by saying he was always read for dialogue, while the Trump Administration started trying to blame the DPRK for not doing anything to organize the summit in Singapore. The next day, on May 25, 2018, Trump would use Twitter to announce that the meeting was reinstated: “We are having productive talks with North Korea about reinstating the Summit which, if it does happen, will likely remain in Singapore on the dame date, June 12th. [sic.], and, if necessary will be extended beyond that date.”

Kim Yong-Chol, the Vice-Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea and a former intelligence chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau of the DPRK, was then despatched to the US by Pyongyang. Vice-Chairman Kim Yong-Chol would stop in China first and then arrive in New York City on May 30, 2018. In New York City Vice-Chairman Kim Yong-Chol met Mike Pompeo for talks. The next day, on June 1, 2018 he would personally deliver a letter from Kim Jong-Un to President Trump at the White House in Washington, DC.

The Consistent North Korean Quest for Harmony

It is generally unknown that prior to the DPRK-US summit in Singapore, the North Korean side for years had been patiently making overtures to the US government behind closed doors in bilateral and multilateral settings to establish peace and reconciliation. There were even suggestions about establishing some form of economic collaboration between the US and North Korea that would involve the disciplined labour of the DPRK and the capital, investment, and technology of South Korea and the US. Some of the North Korean proposals even surprised the representatives of the other countries involved in various multilateral meetings and the Six-Party Talks composed of officials from China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, and the US. A deal was even made between the Clinton Administration and North Korea in 1994, called the Agreed Framework, that fell apart. The North Koreans even went as far as disabling their Yongbyon Nuclear Plant in 2007 as a sign of good will to Washington. Pyongyang, however, legally restarted its nuclear program in 2008 after the US failed to keep its commitments to the DPRK and after US President Barack Obama reserved the right to launch nuclear attacks on Iran and the DPRK in contravention of Washington’s legal commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Pyongyang has been seeking a peaceful resolution that would include security guarantees that it would not be attacked by the US and allow it to integrate with South Korea. In this regard, the DPRK and South Korea agreed to a roadmap for Korean unification within the framework of a federal system on June 15, 2000 through a join North Korean-South Korean declaration signed by North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il and South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung in Pyongyang. The North-South Declaration of June 15, 2000 states the following principles:

  1. The South and the North have agreed to resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country.
  2. For the achievement of reunification, we have agreed that there is a common element in the South's concept of a confederation and the North's formula for a loose form of federation. The South and the North agreed to promote reunification in that direction.
  3. The South and the North have agreed to promptly resolve humanitarian issues such as exchange visits by separated family members and relatives on the occasion of the August 15 National Liberation Day and the question of unswerving Communists serving prison sentences in the South.
  4. The South and the North have agreed to consolidate mutual trust by promoting balanced development of the national economy through economic cooperation and by stimulating cooperation and exchanges in civic, cultural, sports, health, environmental and all other fields.
  5. The South and the North have agreed to hold a dialogue between relevant authorities in the near future to implement the above agreements expeditiously.

What can be understood from the consistent position of the DPRK is that it has always wanted peace with security guarantees that it would not be attacked. Aside from accepting the continued deployment of US troops in South Korea, it is not the DPRK’s position that has radically changed. It is the position of the US that has changed.

The Geopolitical and Strategic Shifts Behind the Singapore Summit

To the best of their abilities, both the US and the DPRK are trying to benefit from their meeting in Singapore at the domestic and international levels. How they will each do this is based on contingency, but what is certain is that the summit in Singapore would not have been possible if it were not for several factors. These include the DPRK’s capabilities, the economic rise of China, Eurasian integration, US decline, and the Trump Administration’s tensions with Iran.

In the first instance, from a strategic standpoint, the DPRK-US summit would have been possible if it were not for the development of the DPRK’s nuclear and intercontinental missile programs. Once North Korea crossed the threshold of being able to credibly strike the entirety of US territory, serious negotiations emerged. Moreover, the DPRK developed its nuclear weapons as both a security and bargaining strategy. By developing them and offering to denuclearize, it has maneuvered Washington into agreeing to remove its own nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula. Should both sides respect denuclearization, a denuclearized Korean Peninsula benefits both the DPRK and its ally China.  

The DPRK does not intent denuclearization to be unilateral. The Republic of Korea or South Korea must play its role in reducing military tensions. This is outlined in the Panmunjom Declaration of April 27, 2018 and committed to by the US in the joint statement of President Trump with Chairman Kim. In this regard, US nuclear weapons have to be removed from South Korean territory in exchange for North Korean denuclearization.

In the second instance, the rise of China and Eurasian integration have played important roles. Economic integration has been a major driver for inter-Korean talks. It was reported that Moon Jae-In handed Kim Jong-Un a blueprint for the economic integration of the Korean Peninsula within the framework of the broader process of Eurasian integration. According to the South China Morning Post, in an article published on May 7, 2018, “President Moon Jae-in [sic.] gave the North’s leader Kim Jong-un a USB drive containing a ‘New Economic Map of the Korean Peninsula’” during their meeting in Panmunjom. “The initiative included three economic belts – one connecting the west coast of the peninsula to China, making the region a centre of logistics; one connecting the east coast to Russia for energy cooperation and one on the current border to promote tourism,” it further reported. This report, falls into line with President Moon’s campaign promises and policy speeches where he has told South Koreans that he will work for the unification of Korea and the creation of a single economy. With Korean reunification, South Korea can join China’s New Silk Road, have direct transportation and energy links to China and Russia, and be able to reach different European and West Asian markets through the transportation hubs China is setting up.

The threats of the Trump Administration to start trade wars and impose tariffs is an indicator of the decline of the US position. The mere fact that the G-7 meeting Trump arrived to Singapore from was one that included public clashes between the US and its allies is a sign that the world is changing. In this regard, the Trump Administration is also trying to replace multilateralism with bilateralism.   

Walking to Singapore While Walking Away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

In the third instance, the withdrawal of the US from the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) necessitated some type of public display of peacemaking and bargaining by the Trump Administration to help deflect public criticism. While the Trump Administration violated the nuclear agreement with Iran with one hand, it created the glimmer of making or starting the process of making another with nuclear deal with North Korea, albeit the cases of Iran and the DPRK are also very different.

As mentioned by this author in an article published by the Strategic Culture Foundation on October 26, 2017, the goals of the Trump Administration are to get Iran to negotiate a new deal with Washington that includes Tehran’s foreign policy and defensive capabilities, such as Iranian ballistic missile production. It is worth repeating what was written in that 2017 article: “The US now wants to put almost everything, if not everything, on the table [with Iran]. Grand bargain or not, instead of dealing with various dossiers idiosyncratically the US wants to deal with them almost all at once ‘comprehensively’ or in ‘totality.’” This is why Trump refused to respect US commitments to the JCPOA and breached UN Security Council Resolution 2231.

Iran has warned North Korea that the Trump Administration may not keep any deal it makes with the DPRK. Pyongyang is not unmindful of this either. North Korean leaders probably realize that Trump desires to make a nuclear deal on one front after he renounces a nuclear deal on another front and have also played this to their advantage.

At the end of the day, the biggest geopolitical winner of all these events—including Trump’s breach of the JCPOA, which guarantees Iran will look east to Beijing even further—is the People’s Republic of China. When the day comes, China will reap the benefits of peace and integration in the Korean Peninsula. An integrated Korea is in Beijing’s favour economically, just like how a totally denuclearized Korean Peninsula void of US nuclear weapons pointed at both North Korea and China also is.