On June 12 when Donald Trump met in Singapore with Kim Jong-un, the other four countries in the earlier Six-Party Talks faced a new diplomatic environment, not only with North Korea, but also with the United States. Anticipating since March a tectonic shift in the framework for this region, especially in contrast to the alarming security concerns of 2017, these countries found themselves in an utterly unprecedented diplomatic context after 70 years of US-North Korean animosity. Unlike the sporadic and tentative overtures of 1993-2017 that failed to signify any breakthrough even if agreements were, at times, reached, the Singapore Statement promised a fundamental resolution of the standoff and reordering of the way diplomacy is conducted. Yet, it came with deep doubts about the trustworthiness of Kim’s vague commitments and the steadfastness of Trump’s stated convictions that the nuclear threat had been fully resolved.

US relations with allies South Korea and Japan and what many regarded as adversaries China and Russia were in unusual flux for multiple reasons in light of Trump’s stewardship of foreign policy under the banner of “America First.” Trade tensions were mounting throughout the spring with many US allies, including Japan, and spiked in June with China, where the stakes are highest. Security related to North Korea and trade could not be compartmentalized, given Trump’s inclination to make everything contingent on linkages and Xi Jinping’s less open but no less determined willingness to make such linkages. While it is difficult to single out the factor of diplomacy with North Korea, that is our objective in this Special Forum. This means considering how ties to North Korea are changing as a result of the far-reaching but decidedly indefinite transformation marked by the summit and how this matters for relations with the United States in the coming period. No bilateral relationship in the Six-Party Talks contest is left unscathed.

US Policy toward North Korea

The Trump administration’s policy toward North Korea in the week or so just after the summit can be characterized as follows: 1) a breakthrough was achieved, which no prior US president accomplished, forging an atmosphere of trust, greatly reducing the chance of nuclear war, and unleashing sustained diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, to which other countries are encouraged to join; 2) Trump-Kim relations are the centerpiece of diplomatic activity, and diplomacy by other states with Washington and Pyongyang should be complementary, not interfering with the main game while reinforcing it, as in dangling carrots before Kim that Trump has no interest in providing; 3) sanctions must be sustained until complete denuclearization is secured, even if some amelioration is possible as long as the pressure on Pyongyang is not removed; and 4) this process is transformative for Northeast Asia and US foreign policy, demonstrating the value of summit diplomacy without lengthy lower-level preparatory work or even multilateral consultations to the point that close US allies could be taken by surprise.

Trump has taken care to credit Xi Jinping with facilitating the turn to diplomacy while, at times, warning that Xi’s administration is doing things that are not helpful. Sino-US relations appear as a key—many would say the most important key—to the progress made with Kim, while also being viewed as the most threatening factor toward maintaining the momentum. Thus, the relationship between these two powerful states both shapes the diplomatic track for all of the states and can be altered by the diplomacy that ensues. US-ROK relations are also seen as vital to how diplomacy with Pyongyang proceeds; in March, Moon Jae-in served as intermediary for the decision by Trump to meet Kim. Some doubt that further coordination will advance as smoothly, given the suspicions at the beginning of 2018 about Moon’s enthusiasm to work with Kim and the many possibilities ahead for disagreement over the priority of complete and verifiable denuclearization and the timing of the carrots that are offered to Kim at each stage. The process of diplomacy with Kim is clearly the foremost test of US-ROK relations. In the case of US-Japan relations, Abe’s two urgent visits to the United States in the three months between Trump’s decision to meet Kim and the actual Singapore summit testify to how much US diplomacy with North Korea means. There is talk that it could unsettle the alliance or even lead to a fundamental adjustment in Japan’s geopolitical policies in Northeast Asia. Trump has set off a stampede of diplomacy with Kim, while at the same time arousing concerns about his diplomacy—pushing Japan to forestall its passing in this important and unpredictable diplomatic process as well as entrapment should the process be reversed.

The challenge for Russo-US relations is most difficult to specify with clarity. The Trump-Kim summit is less central to this relationship than to US ties to the other three countries. Also, US policy toward Russia is more schizophrenic, given the disconnect between Trump’s persistent aspirations to reach a breakthrough with Putin—some see this as an obsession divorced from great power interests and give-and-take talks to resolve differences—and the prevailing alarm over Russian behavior—military and cybersecurity moves, interference in the US presidential election, and general hostility to Washington reminiscent of the Cold War era. Yet, it would be a mistake to fail to recognize the importance of North Korea to Putin. Should Trump decide to hold a summit with Putin in July, as preparations suggest, talk of coordination on North Korea could be a centerpiece, avoiding some issues deemed more controversial and giving Putin reason to claim success for what he will see as a big step in his “pivot to the East.” However, Putin’s inclination to drop sanctions and reward Kim out of step with other countries could make diplomacy with Pyongyang a central focus of further Russo-US tensions.

Kim has recognized that Pyongyang is actually in a promising diplomatic position, given his threat capacity, the aspirations of South Koreans, and the geopolitical maneuvering poised to accelerate as soon as he shifted to a negotiating posture. Whetting Moon’s appetite and catering to Trump’s vanity opened the gates to a diplomatic stampede. This could lead to him gaining considerable leverage, but much depends on bilateral relations involving Trump and other leaders (over which he has some control in a trilateral context). He needs to strike a delicate balance between steps giving at least the appearance of denuclearization and assurances to other leaders that their geopolitical and other concerns will be taken seriously.

The four articles that follow explore responses to the new diplomatic environment created by the decision of Trump to meet with Kim and the Singapore Statement that followed as Trump and Kim each interpreted the outcome of the summit as a success for his administration. We start with Sino-US relations, proceed to US-ROK relations, turn next to US-Japan relations, and finish with Russo-US relations in the context of changing diplomacy to North Korea. This is inherently a triangular approach, but frequently it extends to one or more other countries, as South Korea figures often into diplomatic calculations, as in the cases of China and Japan, and China figures heavily into other calculations, especially in the cases of Russia and South Korea. What we are observing here are US-centered dyads within the legacy of hexagonal diplomacy.

US-China Relations

Singapore may be remembered in history not just as a historic event for the US-North Korea bilateral relationship, but as a consequential moment for a shifting geopolitical landscape in Northeast Asia, at the center of which is the relationship between China and the United States, which has long been heavily impacted by both sides’ ties to the North. China immediately praised the outcome of the summit, applauding the two leaders for “creating a new history,” Patricia Kim observes. Beijing had been anxious in the weeks following the April 12 inter-Korean summit between Moon and Kim about whether it would be sidelined during talks to end the Korean War and then by speculation that Moon might join Trump and Kim in Singapore to make a trilateral declaration that could set the contours of a new framework for the Korean Peninsula. But after the Singapore summit, Trump made clear that “it would be great to have China involved,” as Xi kept meeting with Kim to ensure that Kim would not cut a deal that would harm China’s interests in his talks with Seoul and Washington. Xi’s outreach was not in vain. At the Singapore summit, the North Koreans negotiated a freeze in US-ROK military exercises that China had long advocated as a reciprocal step for North Korea’s suspension of its nuclear and missile tests, and it received a commitment from the United States to work toward “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” interpreted by North Koreans and Chinese to include removing aspects of the US military presence on the peninsula.

A “new future” is not just around the corner, Patricia Kim concludes. Trump’s promise to end joint US-ROK “war games” and to provide security guarantees to North Korea, and the joint statement that committed both sides to work toward a new peace without specifying a clear timeline or roadmap to this outcome will run into complications and raise contentious issues not just between the United States and North Korea, but also between the United States and China.
Now that Pyongyang has declared a pause in its nuclear and missile testing, expressed its willingness to roll back its nuclear program, and ultimately signed a statement with the United States that pledges to seek a new peace for the Korean Peninsula, the United States will face growing pressure from both Beijing as well as progressive factions within South Korea to, at a minimum, suspend any further deployments of US missile defense assets, and most likely to remove existing assets. As Pyongyang begins to dismantle parts of its nuclear program, Beijing will likely point to the US commitment to building a peace regime to protest expansion of its theater missile capabilities in East Asia, e.g., deploying more ballistic missile defense-capable warships and integrating theater missile defense with national missile defense capabilities.

The economic portion of the maximum pressure campaign only worked in 2017 and early 2018 because China was willing to cooperate. While Beijing signed onto increasingly harsh sanctions in 2017, including banning North Korean coal exports, shutting down North Korean businesses and Chinese-North Korean joint ventures operating within China, and reducing North Korea’s oil imports, it cooperated largely to prevent the United States from turning to more extreme measures. Beijing has already begun to call for relaxing sanctions. The levers of economic pressure that could have been used to ensure Kim stays on track with denuclearization have essentially diminished as a result. Trump’s signature on a declaration that promised the United States would seek a "new relationship" with North Korea that was not made conditional on a specific timeline or pledge regarding denuclearization essentially green-lighted South Korean and Chinese economic cooperation with North Korea to move forward, argues Patricia Kim.

Further, in contrast to the US Congress and existing law, Beijing will side with Pyongyang to push against explicit language or deliverables on human rights issues. Since its founding, Chinese leaders have promoted the principle of non-interference. Beijing will stand by Kim in his quest to retain a firm grip over his country and laud him for taking steps toward economic development and improving his people’s welfare. China’s presence in the negotiations will thus serve as a counterweight to pressure from the United States for political reform and progress on human rights issues to get to a peace treaty. This conflict over values, essentially the American and Chinese models, will soon be playing out on the Korean Peninsula, the author suggests.

The three challenges discussed in this article—questions about the US presence in East Asia and pressures to roll back its theater missile defense assets in South Korea and beyond; divergence on the appetite for sanctions while negotiating a peace treaty; and navigating the issue of human rights in North Korea—will test relations especially between the United States and China. The larger struggle between the United States and China will complicate already tough negotiations.

US-ROK Relations

US relationships with North Korea and South Korea are hard to analyze except as part of a triangle, explains Darcie Draudt. Traditionally, the tight and robust US-ROK alliance, along with North Korea’s isolation from the international system, precluded North Korea from playing one side against the other. A nuclear North Korea strengthened the US-ROK alliance while preventing the United States or South Korea from moving independently. Yet, Trump’s unconventional and risky style of foreign relations meant he was willing to not only sit down with the North Korean leader, but also to ignore or even excuse the traditional critiques of North Korean leadership that most US diplomats bring to the fore. In turn, having demonstrated its nuclear weapons and mid- and long-range missile capabilities, North Korea now feels empowered to sit at the table with a global superpower, also recognizing a rare alignment of external factors that facilitate a better position in negotiating. This includes not only Trump’s soft stance on authoritarians and near-sidelining of traditional US partners like Japan, but also South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s desire for reconciliation with the North.

While Trump has been vocal on his primary role in the landmark US-DPRK meeting in Singapore, South Korea has played an essential part in shuttle diplomacy between the two. Moon said in 2017 that he wanted to put Seoul in the “driver’s seat” in negotiations with North Korea. By repeatedly emphasizing the need for continued economic sanctions, the Moon administration has shown support for Washington’s approach. With the United States on board with North Korean engagement, Moon’s attempts to work on his campaign promises of multidimensional North Korea progress were less likely to upset the alliance. Trump has been a disruptor to American foreign policy, and his dealings with North Korea since taking office in 2017 certainly epitomize that disruption. There are two overarching themes to his foreign relations tack that represent a significant shift in US leadership: his view of foreign relations in economic terms and his desire for “No Friends, No Enemies.” The engagement of which Trump speaks is commercial engagement. Trump views this as an opening up to outside investment the way he sees development—as real estate opportunities for leisure. Trump’s meeting with Kim showed he was more willing to move North Korea out of the “enemy” category than to protect the traditional terms of friendship with his allies in South Korea, Japan, argues Draudt.

She finds notable and surprising outcomes of the summit that pertain to US-ROK military coordination and cooperation. Use of the phrase “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”—language preferred by Pyongyang more than Washington—is surprising since it suggests US withdrawal of South Korea from its nuclear umbrella. While the meaning of the phrase “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” remains ambiguous and will be clarified in follow-on negotiations, its inclusion in the Singapore Statement throws uncertainty on the deterrence resolve of the United States in its alliance with South Korea, while remarks to that he would suspend joint US-ROK military exercises left many scratching their heads.

Trump’s shift of US approach toward North Korea is significant because it changes the nature of the ROK-DPRK-US triangle by warming up the previously frosty leg, at least temporarily, adds Draudt. But, Trump’s noteworthy capriciousness on his policy decisions makes the triangle relationship something that requires prolonged and intense attention. Significant issues relating to the Singapore Statement’s vagueness aside, the novelty in Trump’s about-face on North Korea is a new factor that the US-ROK alliance needs to manage. Officials in Seoul as well as Washington are understandably anxious. This unpredictability casts a long and gloomy shadow over the US-ROK relationship; Moon has placed many delicate eggs in the new strategic triangle basket, and Trump is a hammer that can crack one or shatter them all. Trump’s decision on the Iran deal and his dealings with allies and friends at the G7 just prior to the Singapore summit show his potential to unsettle complicated or longstanding international efforts with one offhand remark to reporters. Past, prolonged talks on denuclearization, confidence-building measures, and arms reduction, and a peace treaty with North Korea have been difficult and ultimately fallen apart, and Trump’s short attention span and the administration’s expectations for rapid change make the already tricky process even more difficult. Thus far, that disruption has made the three legs of the strategic triangle warm up, but the power of Trump to disrupt that triangle could just as rapidly shift any of the legs of the triangle soon, concludes Draudt.

US-Japan Relations

Since Trump’s surprise election in November 2016, Abe has scrambled to build a relationship with a mercurial and inexperienced leader who has few fixed beliefs—one of which is seeming hostility toward Japan because (the president believes) Tokyo exploits the United States in its trade and security relationships. According to Brad Glosserman, however, Abe has few cards to play to keep Trump on his side. They were enough during the first year of the new administration, but as Trump has become more comfortable as president, he is increasingly relying on his instincts—and Japan is suffering for it. How to respond to a US president who seems unconcerned about maintaining the pillars of postwar US foreign policy—of which the relationship with Japan is one—is a major concern, argues Glosserman. Abe forged a strong relationship with Trump during the first year of his term, meeting frequently at bilateral summits or on the sidelines of other international gatherings. By one account, the two men have met nine times, played golf three times and spoken nearly two-dozen times by phone. Abe’s approach was hailed as a success at home and abroad, and for many, he set the “gold standard” for relations with a temperamental leader.

The first half of 2018 have been disastrous for US-Japan relations, as Trump has taken Kim’s bait while setting aside the joint caution that he and Abe had planned, imposed tariffs on Japanese exports and threatened much more serious ones, started what could become a huge trade war with China not only without coordination with Japan but with potentially dire effects on it as well, and shown scant regard for the alliance and the personal bond with Abe that had appeared to be strong in 2017. As Glosserman notes, Trump initiated efforts to study whether the same national security provisions that enabled the steel and aluminum tariffs could be used to sanction automobile imports–an affront that even the Japanese could not afford to ignore. In Diet debate, Abe called tariffs on automobiles, which make up about 30 percent of Japanese trade with the United States, “incomprehensible and unacceptable.” With the absence of a timeline for denuclearization and no mention of CVID, Japanese officials working the issue were described as “down in the dumps, fearing that North Korea’s denuclearization will have no substance,” concludes Glosserman, noting some actions that genuinely endanger Japanese interests, as is the case of the suspension of US joint exercises with the ROK military.

There is growing sentiment in Japan that Trump is a wild card and Abe’s attempt to tame or otherwise contain the US president has proven to be a failure. Abe bet that he could insulate his country from Trump’s rages and reversals by forging a personal relationship with him. It was temporarily successful, but the president got comfortable in his new job and decided to go with his instincts (an inclination facilitated by the firing and retiring of advisors prepared to challenge them). As a result, the prime minister was repeatedly blindsided. While a close relationship with the US president was once considered a good thing—and managing US relations has been historically one of the top responsibilities of the prime minister—it is now a potential liability.

The Trump presidency has accelerated or accentuated trends that were already apparent: The most important developments—North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and the rise of China, the spread of its influence, and the closing of the gap between its military capabilities and those of the United States—have been a problem for Japanese strategists (and other like-minded countries) for nearly a decade. To address them, Abe has reached out to other security partners, most notably Australia and India. It is difficult to appreciate the depth of concern in Japan about China, notes Glosserman. Strategists and foreign policy analysts see a genuine threat, but so too do business executives. As in the case of North Korea, however, Japanese strategists know that a hard line is not to be confused with recklessness and confrontation for its own sake. Japan would be on the front lines in either a military or an economic conflict. If Victor Cha’s thesis is correct and uncertainties about relations with the United States push Tokyo and Seoul to cooperate, then Tokyo’s interest and commitment to a “forward looking agenda” with South Korea is about to intensify, is the final prediction offered.

US-Russia Relations

The unanticipated outbreak of a Korean peace process replete with unprecedented DPRK-US and inter-Korean summits has upended previous calculations among all the members of the six-party process in Korea, argues Stephen Blank. Frenetic diplomatic activity among the six parties since March indicates continuing turbulence in the process. Russia, China, and Japan were clearly surprised, and their subsequent moves towards the United States and both Koreas underscore their efforts to reassert their standing as participants with vital interests in the outcome of negotiations. Beijing, Moscow, and Tokyo all felt marginalized. Moscow worries about a peace process excluding it, i.e. bypassing the six-party process, as it has scrambled to keep up since the process began. Unlike Tokyo, it has not been cooperating with Washington, but it has redoubled efforts to work with Pyongyang while it is seeking to reinvigorate Seoul’s interest in trilateralism with Pyongyang and to reassert a common position with Beijing. The impact on Russo-US relations remains unclear now, as Trump appears to be preparing for a summit with Vladimir Putin in July.

Lavrov’s visit to Pyongyang and a statement by Putin that North Korea needs “absolute guarantees of its security” indicate Moscow’s desperate desire to be included. So far, Kim has traveled to China three times while the Chinese foreign minister has come to Pyongyang. But there have been no high-level exchanges with Japan, and there has only been an exchange of foreign ministerial visits between North Korea and Russia. Although Lavrov invited Kim to Russia, that is only now being prepared, and this visit only represented Lavrov’s first visit to Pyongyang in a decade. Even though South Korean president Moon went to Moscow, Russia’s low standing in the regional pecking order and marginalization cast a harsh light on unending proclamations of the success of its Korean and larger Asian policies. If Russia keeps following China’s lead on Korea, it will be hitching its wagon to a great power whose interests diverge from its own and doing so largely because the alliance with China enhances its posture against Washington, but another view is that it can stand with China now, seizing an unprecedented chance to expand its “pivot to the East” through the fast-changing peninsular diplomacy.

The Korean Peninsula is particularly important to Russia because large-scale economic projects possess correspondingly large potential political payoffs that it seeks to generate there. Moscow is playing for very high economic and political stakes in Korea. Failure to register here as a great power affects other crucial areas of policy such as the Arctic, given the importance of Korean ports to transcontinental trade between Europe and Asia through the Arctic and the Arctic’s critical importance to Russia’s future. Thus, geo-economics matter a great deal, given Russian thinking about boosting development in its Far East, capitalizing on the opening of the Arctic, and using the Korean Peninsula to establish a north-south corridor vital to strategic objectives.

The process of diplomacy surrounding the Korean Peninsula is driven by three men: Moon Jae-in, carrying on the progressive obsession in Seoul with achieving a dramatic breakthrough with Pyongyang, which has led to repeated suggestions to Moscow that it has a big role to play in energy and transport with the vertical integration of the peninsula with the Russian Far East; Kim, breaking with his five years of isolation in order to realize his byongjin plans for far-reaching economic development along with nuclear weapons, allowing for a Russian role in part to avoid excessive dependence on either the South Koreans intent on leading reunification or the Chinese with Sinocentric designs; and Donald Trump, who is a wildcard confident of his own instincts and deal-making talents with a penchant to favor Russia in almost every conceivable setting. While Putin is limited in the economic assets at his disposal, they go a long way in an impoverished country, and he may find room to maneuver in light of these three leaders as well as the bonds he and Xi Jinping keep showcasing and Abe Shinzo keeps seeking to activate. 

Why might Putin expect an opening for Russia to play an active diplomatic role? Some may assume that this is wide-eyed optimism, given the preoccupation with Trump, Xi, and Moon—all of whom have more at stake in the fate of North Korea. The fact is that all of their governments are viewed in Pyongyang as a double-edged sword—eager to shape the course of North Korea’s transformation as long as it conforms to certain geopolitical or human rights designs. With the quest for an optimal regional balance of power in the forefront, Russia looms as a force for adjusting the balancing—including in long-term energy supplies, which are viewed through a security prism. Also, Russia could play the role of a spoiler in the delicate process of timing sanctions relief with denuclearization progress; states are attuned to managing its involvement to keep it from becoming disgruntled. Finally, Abe may be in the lead in seeking to wean Russia from China in its “pivot to the East,” recognizing that developments on the peninsula matter.

It is premature to weigh Russia’s prospects in the whirlwind of diplomacy around North Korea. The chances are not small that it would gain a meaningful role in a cooperative process, although nothing like the special salience it has been seeking since Putin went to Pyongyang in 2000 en route to a G-7 summit in Japan. Leaders are inclined to accept it as a genuine player secondary to all but Japan and even Japan if it should employ its finances as part of an historic settlement. Yet, if an adversarial process resumes, Russia is more likely to gain prominence, taking sides more openly with the North Korean leaders. This is the conclusion drawn about Russia’s role.