North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In agreed on a joint declaration on the future of the Korean peninsula last week after their third summit — including the intent to make it a “land of peace free from nuclear weapons and nuclear threats”. Unfortunately, we still have many more questions than answers. Here are five of them:
1. What exactly do we mean by “denuclearization”?
Three months after the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, we still don’t know how Kim Jong-un defines this concept. Does it mean complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (or “CVID”) of North Korea’s 60-some nuclear weapons? That’s what the U.S. State Department said after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was sworn into office this past spring. But President Trump seemed content to accept much less at his Singapore summit meeting with Kim in June.
Kim was quick to seize that opening, which he did by returning the remains of over fifty American service members who died during the Korean War. He also opted not to display ICBMs during North Korea’s 70th anniversary military celebration in September. That was just enough to make sure Kim’s talks with South Korea and the U.S. didn’t fall apart… but not much beyond that. Last week’s summit hasn’t added much clarity, but enough of the principals are politically invested in the process to punt this question until absolutely necessary.
2. What impact will China’s escalating trade conflict with the U.S. have?
Meanwhile, China—North Korea’s benefactor, its main trading partner and link to the outside world—has spent the last few months locked in an intensifying trade war with the U.S. On Sept. 24, Trump imposed tariffs on $200 billion in imports from China, after having already imposed tariffs on $50 billion over July and August. He has also threatened tariffs on another $267 billion, which would effectively cover all U.S. imports from China. Beijing has retaliated with tariffs on $110 billion (once its additional tariffs kick-in) in imports from the U.S., and will increasingly look for creative ways to create pain for U.S. firms.
Could North Korea be one of those pressure points? Beijing won’t actively thwart denuclearization talks just to gain leverage with the U.S. on trade. That would invite Trump to impose sanctions on China and even to re-consider military options to resolve the conflict. But Beijing can dial up or dial down its level of cooperation, and the increasingly tense relationship with Washington doesn’t make Chinese leaders inclined to help the U.S. Chinese President Xi Jinping will continue to look for ways to demonstrate to Trump that any path toward a lasting agreement with North Korea must run through Beijing.
3. Is Moon falling back to Earth?
Then there’s the South Korean side of the equation. President Moon’s approval rating is hovering at 50 percent, which doesn’t sound that bad until you remember he left his first summit with Kim with an 83 percent favorability rating. But while the rest of the world remains fixated on the progress of the nuclear talks, South Koreans are also focused on their daily lives. Unfortunately, housing prices have surged, the unemployment level is at its highest level in nearly a decade, and the Moon administration misfired with a minimum wage hike over the summer.
Moon’s political capital has been critical in advancing nuclear talks to their current point, and his persistence in engaging with Kim in good faith has been one of the few certainties in a process filled with vague statements and second-guessing. But from the perspective of South Korean domestic politics, Moon’s political capital has taken a plunge. How far can a Trump-Kim detente progress with a politically weakened Moon driving developments?
4. What might be the collateral damage from Trump’s domestic problems?
When it comes to domestic political problems, no one can compete with the U.S. president. Here’s a running—though not exhaustive—list of Trump political headaches since he wrapped up his own summit with Kim in June. There was the Helsinki conference in July with Vladimir Putin that can charitably be described as “disastrous” after Trump publicly sided with the Russian president over his own intelligence community; CNN released a secret recording of Trump and his personal lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen discussing hush money to be paid out to former Playboy model Karen McDougal; Cohen eventually pled guilty to felony charges and began cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller; Omarosa Manigault Newman and Bob Woodward both published books that kept the dysfunctions of the Trump administration in the headlines for weeks on end; an anonymous op-ed was published in the New York Times revealing that there was a “resistance” movement within the senior ranks of the Trump Administration; and after being convicted on eight counts of fraud, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort decided to begin cooperating with Mueller, as well.
More than a year and a half into Trump’s presidency, we still don’t know for certain how Trump’s mounting domestic problems translate into foreign policy. Will he channel his defiance into aggressive posturing as he currently seems to be doing with China? Or will the prospect of a signature legacy achievement make Trump more likely to play ball with Kim? We’re about to find out.
5. What is Kim’s long-term strategy?
Which brings us to last week’s summit. The joint declaration signed by both Kim and Moon had six separate sections, but only the fifth section focused on denuclearization; the other sections focused on promoting economic cooperation between the two Koreas, easing military tensions, upping humanitarian and cultural exchanges, and an agreement by Kim to visit Seoul by year’s end. Kim did indeed offer to allow international inspections and to destroy a couple of military/nuclear sites… in exchanged for unspecified concessions from the U.S. Trump hailed it a victory, and the prospect of another Kim-Trump summit is now on the table. Overall, it was the best outcome Kim could have hoped for. But does Kim have an actual strategy here, or is he just taking tactical decisions as they come? That may be the biggest question of all.