Washington Insights, Vol. 7, No. 2

Exchanges in DC are increasingly torn between a focus on bilateral relations—in particular, US relations with China, North Korea, South Korea, and Japan—or on trilateral relations. If the Sino-US relationship has enough heft to galvanize bilateral attention, the other pairings keep becoming enmeshed in triangular analysis. This report on recent seminars and presentations in DC concentrates on the triangular frameworks that have emerged following the Hanoi Summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un—in a period when diplomacy has been relatively quiet as trade talks dragged, denuclearization saw no advance, and Moon Jae-in’s visit to Washington did little more than cover up fundamental differences in their approaches to North Korea.

Xi Jinping is widely understood to insist on bilateral rather than any sort of multilateral paths to China’s relations in the Indo-Pacific, as in BRI, but in dealing with some challenges—especially those involving the United States, Russia, and North Korea—has found it necessary to work with triangular frameworks. Donald Trump eschews multilateralism and, similar to Xi finds an edge in throwing a dominant power’s weight around in bilateral settings, but he has not been able to avoid trilateral frameworks in dealing with China and North Korea. In DC settings and other North American gatherings discussing international relations in East Asia, triangles are in vogue.

The US-South Korea-North Korea triangle

After the Hanoi summit, widely acknowledged to have been a failure, this triangle has been reassessed. Some close to Trump or sympathetic to his distinct approach in summitry with Kim Jong-un and accepting a facilitating role for Moon Jae-in have decided that Hanoi was worth a try and the Singapore summit deserves more credit as a breakthrough, establishing the principles on which to proceed. This stands in stark contrast to the mainstream view in policy circles that the vague agreement in the first US-DPRK summit had set diplomacy on a dead-end track with little chance of sustainability except at Trump’s whim and left a time-bomb for the US-ROK alliance relationship. Nothing that occurred in March or the first half of April altered that view.

South Korean optimism for the summit could be heard in DC preceding the event. Assumed was a remarkable juxtaposition: Moon signaling to North Korea in 2017 that a diplomatic path forward existed although the response did not come until the beginning of 2018; Trump’s unusual diplomatic approach, offering hope that despite his rhetoric in 2017 he could be lured into what could loom as a Nobel Prize winning deal; and Kim, through both confidence and pressure, expressing hope in economic development for the North. The adversarial history of US-DPRK relations made trust-building essential and required a step-by-step approach, for which the Singapore summit was a welcome start. Trump’s conciliatory words and the shift in the US position in the January 31 Stanford speech of Stephen Biegun are viewed as positive approaches to Kim. Moon and Trump have coordinated quite well. Hopes center on a realistic, flexible, pragmatic approach from both sides at the Hanoi summit.

Particular credit is given to Moon’s outreach to Kim with confidence-building measures, trust-building, and even some steps toward arms control and tension reduction. While ideally a Trump-Kim agreement in Hanoi would spur new intensity in bilateral diplomacy, the hope in Seoul is for a three-way deal even if, realistically, Kim’s ties to China make a four-way process most likely. Yet, Moon’s sense of urgency about sanctions relief as part of building trust is at odds with the mainstream US posture of progress on denuclearization as vital to such trust. The message from Seoul is more directed at Trump to defy hardline advisers and be bold in agreeing to a “small deal” for substantial sanctions relief—chiefly for North-South economic projects—than at Kim, who seems little amenable to persuasion from Seoul. In response to this reasoning presumed to reflect the position of the Moon administration, the DC audience raised doubts about Kim’s willingness to denuclearize and about the negative effect of early relaxing of pressure, as China and Russia as well as South Korea rushed to offer more incentives even as denuclearization remained far over the horizon. Commentators stressed more things that are needed by the US side for a deal to be in its interests, even if few had any inkling what Trump what decide once he met Kim in Hanoi. It was recognized that US officials are divided, that no ordinary review process exists for policy making, and that Trump’s focus in election politics. If his moves are uncertain, there was little doubt about what moves suit the US national interest.

After the Hanoi summit panels asked where should the three countries go from here. With critics of Moon’s approach prominent in the exchanges, the consensus from both Americans and South Koreans was that no deal is better than a bad deal. There was no breakdown; so it was expected that talks would continue, but few saw signs that the gap had been sufficiently bridged to show the way. Indeed, the talks had proceeded for a year without a foundation for narrowing differences; so some saw talk of a path forward as further evidence of a charade. The worst outcome, many in DC surmised, would be if Moon to express his frustration at the Hanoi deadlock by unilaterally advancing North-South economic ties. It was assumed that Moon would visit Trump before long to appeal for renewed talks to complete a “small deal” with some sanctions relief freeing Moon to realize some economic progress with the North, but he is unable to sway Trump’s main advisors, making any success dependent on the political calculations of Trump. Right now, they cannot admit failure but also will not make a move that would be interpreted as capitulation in many circles. Thus, the impasse continues.

The status quo appears better than the alternatives to most players on the North Korean issue. Trump prefers that to the blame he would be given for failure. Kim still holds out hope for Trump at a later date making a political calculation that a deal could be sold as a success even if it fell well short of Trump’s claims about it. Moon can avoid the repercussions of overselling this process by pointing to the language of Trump and Kim insisting that they have good personal rapport. Even Xi Jinping, keen on reaching a trade deal with Trump, can take satisfaction that the talks have not been stopped, and China can quietly violate the sanctions regime to support North Korea—enough for it to hold its ground while not harming the atmosphere with the US.

What could alter the status quo in the coming months? DC discussions noted the possibility of economic troubles in North Korea, increasing the impact of outside pressure. Others argued that time is on the North’s side, as it builds its nuclear stockpile and takes advantage of the new diplomatic image of Kim as a regional leader while many blame Trump for failing to strike a deal. Moon may be the biggest loser from the impasse with the least room to maneuver. As one speaker remarked, he has put all of his eggs in the North Korean basket. There is little talk of a deal to be reached since it is assumed that Kim is unyielding on the crucial steps for denuclearization, Trump is content with the image of leadership with no interest in an inter-agency process that would establish what real leadership means, and Moon has virtually no leverage with either of the other two sides. Moon’s visit to Washington in mid-April failed to alter the prevailing pessimistic calculations about reaching a deal while it rekindled talk of a big gap between Washington and Seoul even if the two leaders papered over their differences, but without addressing matters of substance. Nobody appeared ready to make the next move in the impasse.  

No triangle was more on people’s minds than the US-ROK-DPRK triangle. DC audiences tried to gauge South Korean thinking: Because of other North Korean threats did many not view the added nuclear threat as a big deal? Were there concealed aspirations for a unified Korea gaining control over and keeping the nuclear weapons?  Was there concern that a deal allowing the North to keep a limited number of nuclear weapons would damage the ROK-US alliance and lead to a further US tilt toward Japan? Overall, it was assumed that no big ROK-US gap existed.

Another query centered on South Korean thinking about Trump’s posture toward the North. Had he attained the North’s attention by appearing crazy enough to use military force against it? If the North believed that there is no US will to attack it, then it would be more prone to launch provocations, listeners were told. Further attention was given to increased deterrence to make sure the North is convinced. This could mean stronger protection for Seoul, but it certainly does not mean disparaging joint military exercises as if they are dispensable, i.e., rationalizing Trump’s decisions. There were also calls for greater pressure, doubting that so far maximum pressure has been applied given the continued operation of a worldwide criminal network by Pyongyang and the sense that China can do a lot more to apply pressure.

US thinking was at issue too. If proliferation was primary before and ICBMs have lately been in the forefront, is Washington prepared to prioritize a focus that serves as a common interest for its two allies? For some commentators, deterrence is not healthy in new circumstances, and US security has been badly damaged by a lack of trilateralism. Instead of pressing each ally to pay more, Trump should press both to work together more, and Congress should be more involved.

One DC exchange suggested that the US side supported pressing ahead with sanctions on Pyongyang while the South Korean side was more inclined to sanctions relief, holding out hope for denuclearization. Arguing that sanctions are working and that the North has shown no desire to denuclearize, US speakers complained that nothing was gained by suspending joint exercises as the North continues its own exercises. As Washington and Pyongyang each assert that the ball is in the other side’s court, it is unclear how the stalemate will be broken. What is sought by the US side is called a “big deal,” but it actually is holding the North to what it earlier promised with an understanding that implementation would occur flexibly in small steps. From the South Korean side, one heard that talks need to be reenergized for peace. Since the process is divided into two dimensions—intra-Korean and international—either could sustain the peace momentum if one were stalled. One summary of the divide held that the US peace through denuclearization contrasts to the South Korean denuclearization through peace. If some on the US side perceive rewarding behavior that does not warrant it, defenders perceive a strategy to keep on track toward denuclearization, i.e., “strategically designed engagement.” Yet, on the US side it was seen as not strategic at all, but as wishful thinking on the basis of scant evidence.

South Korea has been slow to recognize that Kim, despite humoring Moon, has in mind settling parameters with the US and China before bringing the South heavily into his plans. Chinese too are inclined to see international security issues in the forefront, relegating inter-Korean issues to mostly an economic agenda to follow. Yet, the Chinese expect to stay on the sidelines for a time as Washington and Pyongyang grapple with tradeoffs. In this approach they do not share South Korean assumptions of two North Korean groups—one stuck on just security, and the other pushing for economics, with the implication that encouragement of the latter group can tip the balance.  Behind the South Korean progressive reasoning is the notion that the North is not ready for give-and-take until it is convinced the US accepts it as a partner by relaxing sanctions, among other things. This assumes that South Korea understands the logic of the North better than others, but its conservatives as well as most others do not agree with this indulgent interpretation. With China more vigorously enforcing sanctions and Pyongyang exhausting cash reserves to the point it has stopped importing machinery in 2019, the outside view is generally that sanctions are biting; relaxing them does not win trust but emboldens the regime to hold out longer.

The US-Japan-China triangle

Some are wondering if Abe is out of sync with the US in repairing ties to China energetically. Others are asking if Trump’s push to pressure China will damage Japan. Such uncertainties about the triangular framework were aired at a DC gathering. There was consensus about a hardening DC consensus, recognizing the failure of previous expectations and the more confrontational, long-term strategic rivalry developing. Unlike in the mid-2010s when the Chinese spoke of a “new type of great power relations,” as if that would be a “win-win” outcome, there is widespread awareness that China’s real goal for Asia is a regional order it dominates, signifying a zero-sum outcome and a revival of the historic Sinocentric order. In light of Pence’s Hudson Institute speech, the US is seen as recognizing the challenge and responding with a US-centered order. Japan, audiences were told, is on board with the security approach of the US but advocates a regional economic order at odds with Trump’s approach. Compounded by the lack of US diplomacy with other countries on the regional economic order, Japan and others in the region are faced with an awkward choice. Japan sticks with its ally above all, but China sees new openings for dividing US alliances. One tactic is sharp power; however, that has found little traction in Japan. Another is to play on bureaucratic divisions, gaining ground with METI, where economics reigns supreme, while the Kantei leans toward security issues. Lately, growing Chinese flexibility toward Japan has helped to boost METI’s clout, as US moves serve to alienate some in Japan. This overview reflected the thinking of many US and Japanese analysts.

A review of ongoing Sino-Japanese relations found three turning points. November 2014 was the first when Abe and Xi reached a four-point consensus, putting the tense bilateral relations since 2010 behind with economic cooperation the focus. Both sides were more circumspect in their language, and Abe in his August 2015 statement took special care to not arouse China on sensitive history matters. Second came the shift from ambiguity to support for BRI, broached in May 2017 and made explicit by Abe in July. While Abe put several conditions on any backing, Chinese media hailed this change, contrasting the US and Japanese approaches. This was a big victory for Abe prior to the 19th Party Congress. The third turning point occurred in August 2018 at events marking the 40th anniversary of the treaty normalizing bilateral relations, when China eschewed criticism of Japan on history even as some Japanese voices were critical of Abe. The message from Beijing is that this relationship remains important and partial reconciliation has occurred even if public opinion may lag. The effort to get a joint stance against US pressure on trade continued without convincing a wary Japan. Many fear that China is just trying to use Japan, prioritizing a new regional order excluding the US. Meanwhile, rising dependency of the Japanese economy on China—as in tourism—could boost interest groups ready to hedge. The goal of rallying against protectionism soon faced spillover from security aspects of economic ties, as in the struggle over exclusion of Chinese 5G, which Abe endorsed. Clearly, Abe stands on the side of the US, while other Asian states may be more hesitant to declare their position.

One Japanese perspective is that Obama was too weak on China; so, even if Trump prioritizes trade, he is welcomed as someone all in on great power competition. Still, unlike in supporting the tough US posture to the Soviet Union in the late 70s and much of the 1980s, Japan now cannot be as tough as the US was. Yet, much depends on how serious trade tensions become. How much security spillover into the economic arena lies ahead? There is no clarity about how the Trump administration links the two; so it is hard for Japan to coordinate, listeners were told. Were the US to get tougher, the Japanese would still have a problem, the discussion made clear.

One exchange asked if US-Japan relations are in disarray without pointing directly at the China factor. One response is that they are not in as much disarray as other US alliances, but in the midst of so much disarray and such rapidly rising challenges, they bear scrutiny and action. In particular, the shifting military balance in East Asia has raised alarm in Japan, earlier centered on China and more recently with North Korea a big concern. The result has been a fundamental rethinking in Japan on security, recognizing that the US-Japan alliance is insufficient and that, as a major military power despite the legacy of pacifist limitations on offensive capabilities, Japan has to do more. Even if its military power is overshadowed by its economic power, Japan ranks in the top ten in military spending—and has done so since the early 1980s, and can find ways to reassure its ally and partners in Asia as well as boost its own sense of security. It has sent the SDF out, altered laws to improve readiness to act if a contingency arose, and changed the way it interprets its Constitution, as in allowing for collective self-defense. Defense plays a role in how relations have unfolded with Australia, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines. While concern over entrapment once was palpable, the focus in this century has shifted to fear of abandonment. If Trump has, in some ways, offered reassurances, he has also threatened in unprecedented ways to withhold resources, withdraw troops or, on a global scale, treat alliances with disrespect, as if US protection is negotiable or relations with adversaries are subject to personal whims.

How much does Abe deserve credit as the astute leader able to simultaneously appease Trump, lead in sustaining the liberal, international order, and damp tensions in the region? In response to this question, in light of his preoccupation with the challenge from China but need to sustain Japan’s economic vitality, the answer was pretty flattering of his strategic acumen. Abe is most successful in sticking close to Trump—even if groveling or delaying is what it is taking in dealing with moves on North Korea, trade, and host nation support—and most active in filling the vacuum left by US unilateralism and retreat. Some panelists went so far as to suggest that Abe has found it easier to deal with Trump than Obama, whose words were appreciated more but whose actions left Japan frustrated, especially in facing the rising challenge from China.

The security establishment was more critical of Obama than the public. Yes, he refocused on Asia and reduced the overzealous US involvement in the Middle East, but his interests in Asia were scattered without a core. He took a pan-Asian approach instead of a hub-and-spokes one, which Japanese appreciated, but the rebalance lacked meat, and his failure to stick with a red line in Syria cast doubt on US steadfastness in defense of the Senkaku Islands. Curiously, the critique of Obama included his lack of a tough response to Russia’s move into the Crimea, when Abe’s much weaker response was the object of much US criticism. Nor is Obama credited with hard work to put Japan-ROK relations on track after Abe had helped to derail them. Thus, blame to Obama serves to make Abe look more strategic in his thinking and to give Trump a pass as if he does not look so bad in comparison. It was said that in 2013-14 Japan was hedging because it lost trust in Obama, but its moves in Southeast and South Asia were strongly endorsed by the US side, its alarm over China meant that there was no hedging there, its handling of Seoul was the opposite of hedging, and hedging toward Russia was mostly about China, even as US ire over it centered on Japan making a big strategic mistake. The idea that Obama raised concern about abandonment more than Trump or that Abe and Trump have good personal chemistry, while Obama was aloof, is hardly convincing to many. The Japanese public sees through it with its low approval of Trump, not Obama. Also, fear that Trump will really damage the relationship, especially if he wins a second term, is quite telling. Yet, that one-sidedness does not take away from the conclusion that Abe has been astute in a difficult environment aroused by Trump even if his South Korean policy for those thinking of the liberal international order and his North Korea policy for those worried about isolation in the possible transition to a new regional order, both draw disclaimers about just how astute he has been. The biggest test for many remains China, and Trump’s uncertain policy leaves the jury out on how well Abe is positioning Japan in this evolving triangle, where US pressure to get tougher on China might ensue or a US-China deal might open more room for Abe to play both sides.

The US-Japan-South Korea triangle

There has been surprisingly little emphasis on the unprecedented trouble for this triangle from the breakdown of Japan-ROK relations over the past year. Over the years, despair over such trouble has often been aired in DC; so fatigue may be operating. Also, the absence of clear leadership from the Trump administration is a factor. Moreover, Trump has turned attention in other directions. Probably, the main cause, however, is the loss of urgency about how this bilateral relationship matters for regional issues, especially regarding North Korea. Even so, there is little support for the South Korean side in the way it has lately managed ties to Japan.

Historical memory has fallen from public consciousness with trade and denuclearization now in the forefront. Abe’s 2015 management of history in his August statement and in the December “comfort women” agreement proved to be a turning point. There has been little coverage since of anything Abe has said or done that could be recognized as justifying South Korean rancor. In contrast Moon’s image as a US partner versus China or as a strong force to get denuclearization in North Korea has not fared well. The “comfort women” issue has little impact now, and the “compulsory compensation for forced labor” issue has failed to catch on as a cause for outside sympathy. DC think tanks tend to prioritize security and trade matters, and they have urgent issues in mind. Moon is only deepening distrust in his leadership with his handling of Japan.

While South Koreans were generally quiet when US concerns were raised about the state of Japan-ROK relations, American speakers often explored ideas for boosting trilateralism or at least limiting the downward cycle in Japan-ROK ties. One suggestion was for the US side to bring Japan more actively into the US-ROK defense planning, pointing out to Seoul its vital role. Along these lines, more lively exchanges of young officers were suggested. If some warned the US from openly taking Japan’s side, fearing that Moon could turn more negative toward the US, others countered that the situation is primed for a further downturn with fines on Japanese firms and retaliatory moves by Japan, following a deterioration in the attitude of Japanese firms already and a sharp drop in bilateral trade. Intervention now might stop a downward cycle.

The US-China-North Korea triangle

At one panel North Korea was described as a vehicle for China to unravel the US presence in Northeast Asia. If the US maintains maximum pressure, it loses because the North will resist successfully, and China will find ways to overcome the North’s hostility. If a war atmosphere arises, China is positioned to occupy Pyongyang while the US is still defending Seoul. A tough US stance pushes Seoul closer to Beijing to find some path forward. The recent personnel turnover in Pyongyang signifies the consolidation of power by Kim, although that does not mean he has carte blanche to denuclearize, since he has not built another source of legitimation—in the absence of strong economic results—and he still operates under the legitimacy established by his father and grandfather on the basis of security power and nuclear clout. If Kim were to make a decision at odds with the foundation of legitimation, it would arouse resistance, it was said. A corollary to that argument is the case that if Kim fails in his diplomacy, there will be no alternative leader able to pursue denuclearization—the unified center would splinter, paranoia would further rise, and a gradual move to make economics a base for legitimation would seem more doubtful. Further, engaging Kim, even if denuclearization is not realistic, has the benefit of lessening China’s ability to use North Korea as a tool in its regional strategy versus the US.

Countering the above argument was the view that too much is being made of what is known of personnel turnover, factions, and how they can limit the supreme leader. We need humility about how little we know and what constraints we think exist on the power of Kim Jong-un. It is also doubtful, listeners were told, that an economic case can be made for regime legitimacy. Two reasons were cited: 1) the South Korean economy is so far ahead that legitimacy on this basis is not within reach; and 2) the chances of far-reaching economic reform are slim; so little investment can be expected. Instead, legitimation still rests heavily on an interpretation of the history of the Korean Peninsula, which works against reconciliation. Finally, the opposing view held that Kim should be capable of a decision on denuclearization, as his grandfather made in 1994 and his father in 2005 and 2007 without endangering power transitions. The US should not give up on the quest for denuclearization, as if that is beyond Kim’s capacity or it demands economic legitimation before tough decisions are made, is the principal message. Also, seeing diplomacy as an opportunity to wean Pyongyang away from Beijing is unrealistic, only playing into Pyongyang’s wedge-driving tactics when there is scant prospect of such as alignment and ample reason to focus first on Pyongyang’s links to Seoul to see what its intentions really are.