SEOUL: The planned summit between North and South Korea, the announcement of a summit between North Korea and the US, and the meeting between North Korea and China have made March 2018 a pivotal month.
These three meetings, and their related contacts, will likely remake the regional landscape for years to come.
The North Korea–US summit will be a spectacular drama, but in diplomatic and strategic terms it will be a mess.
US intelligence and diplomatic professionals will be battling the White House to determine the Trump administration’s diplomatic approach.
New US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton echo President Donald Trump in their extremism, contempt for the international system, and disregard for diplomacy.
Will the involvement of the United States, with its conflicted interests, support or inhibit the progress that is now likely?
The US about-face after 17 years of coercion and fear of talking to North Korea should be given close attention.
The Trump administration is racing to reassemble a team with enough diplomatic expertise to negotiate with North Korea and to re-establish its capacity to plan strategically.
READ: A commentary on the role Mike Pompeo will play in US diplomacy.
Should these two efforts fall short, the chances of a successful North Korea–US summit will fade.
A MAJOR GAMBLE
The North–South Korea summit in end April will begin to re-establish economic and political links on the Peninsula that may facilitate short- and medium-term planning for joint development.
READ: A commentary from a career diplomat giving tips on dealing with Kim Jong Un.
Longer-term plans depend on sanctions relief from the UN, an issue that South Korean President Moon Jae-in will have to handle smartly. This may partly explain why he has dragged Trump into talks at a time when the United States is unprepared.
This is the major gamble of the North Korea–US summit. The North has little reason to reach an agreement with the US unless sanctions begin to be eased.
Yet any easing of sanctions makes it harder for the White House to claim that North Korea is surrendering under US pressure. Trump’s latest gambit, withholding the US–Korea trade agreement presumably to force Moon to adopt his surrender demand, will test the use of sanctions.
The gamble appears to make sense from Moon’s point of view, since the most likely downside of the summit is prolonged diplomatic wrangling, not military action.
CHOREOGRAPHING A DANCE
Stability and security on the Korean Peninsula is very much a regional project.
At the height of inter-Korean rapprochement in 2000, North Korea’s neighbours anticipated significant benefits to easing tensions, from increased infrastructure spending to savings in military expenditure.
This time, the planning for North Korean economic development funded by the World Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the Belt and Road Initiative cannot be held hostage to the whims of an unpredictable US administration.
These economic opportunities have been put off for too long and they are too politically valuable for regional leaders and their governments to postpone them.
South Korea would therefore be wise to make sure that US actions are parallel but separate from any medium- and long-term inter-Korean or regional initiatives. This would keep open the possibility of a future US president more seriously joining these regional projects.
BRING IN THE UN
The South Koreans are apparently leading both summit processes.
It will be more important than ever for them to fully bring the United Nations (UN) into multiple supporting roles, ranging from nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency to humanitarian involvement by the Red Cross and the convening role of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
In light of the Trump administration’s reduced diplomatic capacity and its continuing disinterest in multilateral and international institutions, UN participation will be critical to address the deficit of regional leadership.
US WEAKER YET MORE FLEXIBLE THAN EVER
Why is this diplomatic break from over fifteen years of stalemate happening now? And why has the sudden activism on the part of South and North Korea been well received by the United States?
There are three primary reasons. First, Washington is weaker and less capable of strategic diplomacy than it has been in a generation, but its position is more flexible than ever.
Second, Seoul is led once again by a progressive president, and Moon has more political legitimacy than any of his predecessors.
Third, North Korea has increased confidence in its military deterrent and political stability. Kim Jong Un faces the best external environment in 17 years despite North Korea feeling the squeeze of sanctions.
From his perspective, now may be a good time to try to reassemble elements from 2000 and to move forward with economic development.
But North Korea is still isolated and poor. When diplomacy has worked in the past, it was because South Korea, the United States and the international community made credible promises to make economic development available.
The North Korea–China meeting suggests that China will oppose US military threats more strongly and support the easing of sanctions more quickly. It may also mean that the North will feel additional confidence, and begin to deal away its nuclear weapons capability.
In the short term, the summits may enable the United States to recover the three Americans held hostage in North Korea, arrange a freeze in Kim’s nuclear programme, and cut off a range of humanitarian and illicit activities.
In the longer term, the region is beginning an evolution towards greater political engagement, less security risk, and infrastructure development.
It is now up to South Korea to choreograph this two-step dance, keeping the US happy, but not in some ways, and in a very short matter of time.
Stephen Costello is an independent analyst and consultant and the producer of AsiaEast. He was formerly director of the Korea programme at the Atlantic Council and director of the Kim Dae Jung Peace Foundation. His column appears in The Korea Times. This commentary first appeared in the East Asia Forum.