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In the Trump-Kim deal, China is the biggest winner

As US influence recedes with a partial drawdown of troops, China will gain another step toward becoming East Asia’s dominant diplomatic and economic player.

columns Updated: May 12, 2018 15:49 IST
A combination photo shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, North Korea and U.S. President Donald Trump in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., respectively from Reuters files. Will Kim accept anything less than an explicit US pledge never to invade his country? (Reuters)

What if Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un really do make a deal? There is plenty of reason for scepticism. Why would Kim surrender the nuclear weapons programme he has worked so hard to expand? Why would the US withdraw its 28,500 troops? How can Kim build a sustainable North Korean economy that relieves him of the need to blackmail his way to financial help? There are other unanswered questions.

But it’s possible that a meeting between Trump and Kim will produce an agreement that represents a major step forward. Maybe it begins with the release of three US citizens detained in North Korea. With a pledge to continue the discussion of “denuclearisation,” perhaps Kim will agree to a permanent suspension of tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles, removing the threat that North Korea can launch a nuclear attack on the US mainland. In exchange, Trump might pledge to draw down the total number of US soldiers on the peninsula with numbers and timing to be determined at a later date.

North Korea then welcomes inspectors to take stock of its nuclear assets. Trump gives his blessing to a peace deal between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and promises the US will not invade North Korea so long as it continues to comply with a test ban and cooperates with inspectors. Whatever the details, there is enough room for compromises that can make a deal possible.

North Korea would be an obvious winner. Even without an active nuclear programme, the DPRK has enough conventional military firepower to keep its leverage in future negotiations. Kim has already improved his and his country’s image with South Koreans, particularly young people, who feel less natural kinship than their parents and grandparents with their neighbours to the north. A deal with Trump would intensify that effect. The greater test will come when Kim begins to experiment with an opening of the North Korean economy, and therefore the country, to outsiders.

South Korea’s Moon Jae-in would be a clear winner for as long as the deal holds. Moon knows that former South Korean president Kin Dae-jung won a Nobel Prize for his work toward a Korean peace deal in 2000. The Nobel committee is unlikely ever to offer Donald Trump anything, and Moon, despite his protestations that Trump is more deserving, is an obvious choice for a future prize. South Korea itself will be a winner for as long as a pre-emptive US attack on North Korea is no longer up on the table.

Donald Trump is an obvious winner. Every step away from conflict with North Korea allows him to argue that his high-pressure approach is a winner and that he’s better able to bring lasting peace than Barack Obama proved to be. Securing the release of Americans held in the DPRK is a win by itself. The United States wins if Trump can earn a test ban on missiles capable of hitting the US. But over the long-term, the US will find it has less influence over the future of the region.

That’s why China is the biggest winner of all. The Chinese leadership has long feared that a North Korea-related security emergency could spill across the border into northeast China. A peace deal would reduce that threat. And as US influence recedes with a partial drawdown of US troops, China will gain another step toward becoming East Asia’s dominant diplomatic and economic player.

The biggest loser from a Trump-Kim deal would be Japan, which remains within range of North Korean weapons that don’t need to be tested. A lighter US presence in the region, further expansion of Chinese influence, and a burst of national pride in Korea all create trouble for Tokyo.

Of course, there are still clear obstacles to a deal. Will Trump back away when Kim makes clear that he will freeze, but not surrender, his nuclear weapons programme? Will Kim accept anything less than an explicit US pledge never to invade his country? Will Kim react badly, as his government did in early May, if Trump continues to insist he has forced Kim to the table? Or maybe Kim is simply playing for time by beginning a negotiation process he hopes will bring immediate economic relief while extending the talks until Trump is no longer president?

For now, it appears the two men will meet. Each has an interest in a deal that makes him a winner. For now, we should suspend our scepticism until we see what sort of a deal they can make.

Ian Bremmer is president, Eurasia Group, and author of the forthcoming book Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 12, 2018 15:49 IST