The long-awaited summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, previously scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, is now off. Earlier this week, Trump hinted at his reasoning for nixing the summit. He observed that following Kim’s second visit to China and meeting with President Xi Jinping earlier this month, “there was a somewhat different attitude [from Kim] after that meeting.” Trump added, “I can’t say that I’m happy about it.”
Before accepting the insinuation that China played summit spoiler, it is worth considering whether the unconventional way that the Trump administration pursued diplomatic engagement with North Korea is partially to blame.
From the outset, the Trump administration’s decision to hold a presidential summit with Kim was aberrational and unconventional. As New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler recounted at a recent Washington, D.C., event, Trump’s determination to meet with Kim was made in a matter of hours on the evening of March 8, during a meeting with South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong. The South Korean delegation was at the White House to relay an invitation from Kim requesting a meeting with Trump. Trump’s immediate acceptance, which overturned decades of precedence in sitting U.S. leaders refusing to meet with their North Korean counterparts, stunned the South Korean official. After a brief call to obtain President Moon Jae-in’s permission to move forward, Chung was trotted out to brief the White House Press Corps. While this made for great theater, it took both Japan, the United States’ most important ally in Asia, and China, North Korea’s primary backer, by complete surprise.
The failure to consult Beijing before agreeing to the meeting arguably damaged the summit’s prospects for success. The United States, including Trump in bilateral discussions with Xi, had expended considerable diplomatic capital to get China to buy in to the campaign of maximum pressure versus North Korea. Over the course of 2017, China signed off on multiple UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions that imposed successively stricter sanctions on North Korea, including prohibiting major exports such as coal, textiles, and seafood; banning crude oil imports and capping refined petroleum imports; banning imports of key dual-use goods such as heavy machinery and transportation vehicles; disallowing joint ventures with North Korean companies; freezing overseas assets, and severely curtailing North Korea’s capacity to send guest workers abroad, which is a key source of hard currency for the Kim regime. Not only did China vote for these sanctions in the UNSC, it began to strictly enforce them, putting severe pressure on the North Korean economy. At every step of the way, particularly through their respective UN permanent representatives, the United States and China consulted on applying pressure on North Korea. For example, following the UNSC’s adoption of Resolution 2397 in late December, which imposed the most restrictive sanctions on North Korea to date, U.S. Permanent Representative Nikki Haley stated, “I would like to specifically thank my Chinese colleagues for working with us on the negotiations.”
As North Korea began to buckle under the impact of sanctions, Kim used the opening created by South Korea’s hosting of the 2018 Winter Olympics to extend an olive branch to Seoul in his New Year’s speech. As engagement with South Korea accelerated, Kim reinforced his willingness to negotiate by enacting a de facto freeze on North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile testing. Inter-Korean rapprochement and a less truculent North Korea eventually led to a thaw in U.S.-North Korea relations. This created the first opportunity for direct senior-level engagement between the United States and North Korea since Secretary of State Madeline Albright visited Pyongyang in October 2000. However, in order to ensure a successful summit outcome, it was essential to gain China’s buy in. Consider the view from Beijing’s perspective: China, despite its growing differences with the United States, had supported and been the key implementer of the maximum pressure campaign. Is it not reasonable then that Xi would expect to be consulted in advance of Trump agreeing to meet with Kim?
Instead, the Chinese learned of the Trump-Kim summit the same way that the rest of the world did, through the media. For Beijing this was particularly unnerving as this sudden U.S.-North Korea turn toward diplomatic engagement coincided with a period of rising U.S.-China friction. Tensions were driven by intensifying U.S.-China negotiations over trade, a series of Trump administration strategic documents (the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and the Nuclear Posture review) designating China a “revisionist power” and a strategic threat to the United States, and a series of U.S. actions on Taiwan that irked Beijing, such as the consideration of U.S. Navy calls to Taiwanese ports and the Taiwan Travel Act, which urges higher-level visits between the United States and Taiwan. Due to these difficulties, China’s own troubled relationship with its North Korean ally, and Trump’s proclivity for unconventional and unpredictable action, Beijing grew increasingly concerned that it would be cut out of a deal determining the future of the Korean Peninsula.
China and the United States share the objective of North Korean denuclearization, but attach different priorities to this goal. For Washington, denuclearization is the top priority, which means it is willing to risk a level of disorder in North Korea that China cannot countenance (see: “bloody nose strategy”). By contrast, China’s policy, which Xi has often repeated in meetings with U.S. counterparts, is based on the three nos: “No war. No chaos. No nukes.” China is not happy with a nuclear North Korea, but if Beijing has to choose between regime collapse — likely culminating in a unified U.S.-aligned Korea along its northeastern border — or living with a nuclear North Korea as a buffer against the United States and its allies, it will inevitably choose the latter.
Due to China’s strategic rivalry with the United States in East Asia, an additional underlying goal of Chinese strategy is to limit or reduce the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula. This is evidenced by China’s repeated “dual suspension” (AKA “freeze for freeze”) proposals, wherein the United States and South Korea would suspend annual bilateral military exercises in exchange for North Korea halting its nuclear and missile development activities. China’s goal of attenuating the U.S.-South Korea military alliance was most starkly demonstrated last year by Beijing’s vociferous opposition to the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. Despite reassurances from Washington and Seoul that THAAD was intended solely to protect and deter against North Korean aggression, China saw the system as a threat to its own deterrence capabilities. In response, China retaliated against South Korea economically, taking punitive measures such as limiting Chinese tourism to South Korea and making it difficult for Korean companies to operate in China (according to the Bank of Korea these de facto sanctions reduced South Korea’s expected growth in 2017 by 0.4 percentage points).
In retrospect, U.S. failure to consult China before agreeing to the summit is even more baffling, given the high likelihood that Kim would seek major power backing from China before heading into one-on-one negotiations with the United States. As a result, despite the mutual dislike and distrust between Xi and Kim, close coordination between the two leaders became practically inevitable due to China’s fear of being cut out of talks, and North Korea not wanting to go it alone. The first meeting between Xi and Kim took place three weeks after the Trump-Kim meeting was announced, when Kim secretly traveled to Beijing via train. At the meeting, Xi praised the “positive changes” that “had taken place on the Korean Peninsula” this year, but also declared that the China-North Korea alliance “is a strategic choice and the only right choice” that “should not and will not change because of any single event at a particular time.” For his part, Kim noted that due to the rapid developments on the Korean peninsula he felt a “moral responsibility” to appraise Xi of the situation. Taken together, this sent an unmistakable signal that China could not be left out of the loop, as it had been in early March, of negotiations over the future of the Korean peninsula.
This was further reinforced in early May, when Kim traveled to China for his second meeting with Xi in the northeastern city of Dalian. Following the meeting, Xinhua reported that Kim suggested “phased and synchronous measures” to “advance the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula Issue and eventually achieve denuclearization and lasting peace on the peninsula.” This language strongly resembles China’s past “freeze-for-freeze” proposals. Furthermore, Xi praised Kim’s discontinuation of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, and dismantlement of the nuclear testing site as demonstrating “resolute determination to safeguard regional peace and stability” thereby implying it was the United States’ turn to take reciprocal steps.
It is hardly surprising that after this meeting, Pyongyang felt emboldened to respond stridently to the U.S.-South Korea Max Thunder joint military exercises proceeding as planned, stating the United States will “have to undertake careful deliberations about the fate of the planned North Korea-U.S. summit in light of this provocative military ruckus.” North Korea’s amped up rhetoric — and the reported failure of North Korean diplomats to show up at a planning meeting — provided the impetus for Trump’s letter calling off the summit plans.
The cancellation of the Singapore summit, in part because of failure to consider the China factor, lays bare the foreign policy limitations of the Trump presidency. While Trump may have envisioned the summit as a mano-a-mano sit-down with Kim Jong-un, there are more than two (or three, if you include South Korea) players at the table. The resultant summit post-mortems that are likely to crop up in the next few days would do well to note that the summit failed to materialize in part because Trump failed to grasp the complex intricacies of the strategic situation on the Korean Peninsula, which concerns myriad actors with multiple, sometimes divergent, equities.
John S. Van Oudenaren is a Program Officer at the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI). The views expressed in this article are solely his own.