The Korea Summit: It Should Be Simple—But It Won’t Be

By June Teufel Dreyer

The Korea Summit: It Should Be Simple—But It Won’t Be

By June Teufel Dreyer
The North Korea-United States summit is scheduled to take place on June 12 in Singapore.

In April, for the first time ever, the leader of North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) stepped over the border into South Korea, the ROK, where its president awaited. The two men shook hands, hugged as if they meant it, and vowed to end the Korean War. While hostilities ceased with an armistice in 1953, there has been no treaty, so technically the war continues. The prospects for ending it seem positive. 

Annoying high-decibel broadcasts across the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries have ceased, and lower level officials have quietly met to take care of housekeeping details: arranging reunions for family members who have been separated since the war began 65 years ago, and making plans to reconnect railway lines and roads. DPRK leader Kim Jung-un has promised to end his nuclear program; North Korean television has broadcast videos of a blast site being demolished. And on June 12, Kim will meet Donald Trump in Singapore, with the U.S. president anticipating that he can get Kim’s signature on an agreement to turn over his nuclear arsenal. 

What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as it turns out. Peace on the Korean peninsula involves the concerns not only of the two Koreas, or even those of both Koreas and the United States. China and Japan each have vital interests, not always the same ones, in how the peace is concluded, and each is determined to have a say in the outcome. 

While neither country is in favor of a nuclear-armed DPRK, China does not fear that nuclear weapons will be used against it, whereas Japan, the only country ever to have nuclear weapons used against it, decidedly does. And even if the U.S. gets a firm commitment on ending North Korea’s nuclear program, Japan would remain within range of the DPRK’s shorter-range, non-nuclear missiles. Tokyo is also anxious for information on children abducted by North Korea, some of them many decades ago. And, whereas the two Koreas are in favor of unification of north and south, China, though not publicly saying so, has been successfully playing the two Koreas against each other for decades, and has no desire to surrender this leverage. In addition, Beijing, as an autocratic government, is more comfortable with other autocratic states, and believes it unlikely that a unified Korea would be anything other than more liberal, more democratic, and therefore more independent of guidance from China.

There are also definitional problems. When Kim says complete denuclearization, does he mean truly complete, or only that he will cease future testing? There have been suspicions that the dynamited facility had already been rendered inoperative because of damage from previous tests.

And does he mean immediately, or over a long period of time? And if so, how long? What incentives will he demand—certainly aid for development, but how much, and at what intervals will it be rendered? Will the aid really go to create a better life for the average North Korean, or will it be used for other weapons, if not nuclear ones?

What about human rights? Those defectors who have managed to escape North Korea alive have told horrendous tales of prison camps in which torture and starvation are the norm. The parents of Otto Warmbier, the student who paid with his life for the simple act of taking down a poster, want assurances that no others will ever face this fate.

Less emotionally involved observers worry that Trump is so eager for a quick victory that he will settle for a declaration to end the war without answering these questions. And they worry that Kim, a shrewd negotiator, will insist on leaving so-called details for future discussion, thus drawing the United States into protracted negotiations, as his father did before him, while continuing his nuclear research and development. Will he demand a complete American withdrawal from the Korean peninsula? Would South Korea be comfortable with that? Could Kim, like Lucy van Pelt in the famous Peanuts cartoon, be setting up Trump as Charlie Brown, only to pull away the football of peace at the last moment?   

It should be simple, but it certainly won’t be. June Teufel Dreyer

June Teufel Dreyer is a professor of political science in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences. An internationally renowned authority on China, she teaches courses on U.S. defense policy and international relations, and is a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a member of International Institute for Strategic Studies.