The Koreas

US-North Korea-South Korea: Three’s Company or a Crowd?

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The Koreas

US-North Korea-South Korea: Three’s Company or a Crowd?

The Kim-Trump summit is on. What about a trilateral follow-up?

US-North Korea-South Korea: Three’s Company or a Crowd?
Credit: Cheong Wa Dae

The diplomatic whirlwind surrounding the planned June 12 summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump includes multiple parties beyond the historic antagonists in Pyongyang and Washington. Due to the accident of geography and the evolution of historical animosity, the Korean Peninsula has long been the cockpit of great power politics in Northeast Asia. Like a vortex, it cannot but draw in the competing interests of its neighbors.

So, while much attention has been focused on the on-again-off-again drama surrounding the Kim-Trump summit, which now has a specific location and start time — at Singapore’s Capella Hotel at 9:00 am local time on June 12 — these various neighbors have scrambled for influence by holding or planning to hold their own meetings before, during, and after the unprecedented summit between the U.S. and North Korean heads of state. As David Nakamura of The Washington Post writes: “The leaders of China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia are determined to make their presence felt at the Singapore summit Tuesday, lining up their own meetings with Trump and Kim and pushing agendas that are, in many cases, at odds with one another.”

Such meetings or potential meetings include: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s trip last week to meet Kim in Pyongyang and extend an invitation for a potential Kim-Putin summit in September; Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to the White House on Thursday; a possible trilateral meeting between North Korea, China, and Russia on the sidelines of the two-day Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit this weekend; and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two summit meetings with Kim over the last three months.

Of particular significance, though, is the possibility of a three-way summit between Kim, Trump, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. As of this writing, no such meeting as been confirmed and the Blue House (Seoul’s presidential office) repeatedly denies one has been scheduled. Nevertheless, whether it occurs in Singapore or thereafter, it is worth exploring the purpose, implications, and limitations of such a follow-on trilateral meeting between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington.

The possibility of such a meeting has been in the air for months. Building off of the the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, issued at the April 27 inter-Korean summit, a trilateral summit is something the Blue House has eagerly promoted as an important step toward formally ending the Korean War. The idea appears to be to somehow create a viable settlement by moving quickly, and, at least from Moon’s perspective, keep both sides embedded in an ongoing architecture of summits and unprecedented declarations — even if the work of formulating the complex details and implementation of such declarations remains to be worked out.

However, despite Trump’s own statement that a declaration ending the Korean War might be possible at the Kim-Trump summit, South Korean authorities have played down the possibility. They are likely hesitant to assume anything is certain in light of Trump’s penchant to zigzag and impetuously change course. Also, it is not clear even if the Trump administration wants a trilateral summit to occur in Singapore, as it could detract from the historic ceremony surrounding the first ever meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader. Put simply, Trump likes (read: craves) all the attention.

Additionally, it is not clear how the Kim-Trump summit itself will proceed. What, if anything, will be agreed to? Might it rapidly fall apart, with one or both sides quickly walking away? On the one hand, some of Trump’s recent comments indicate a lowering of expectations, that things will not be settled all at once at the summit. On the other hand, speculation exists that the current prolonged talks at Panmunjom (now in their sixth round) between U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui show that both sides are facing obstacles in hammering out details for the summit agenda.

Assuming a trilateral meeting between Seoul, Pyongyang, and Washington did occur in Singapore, and the three formally declared an end to the Korean War, it would be a truly unprecedented and historic gesture. Yet it would be a symbolic political gesture, one requiring concrete and difficult steps to actualize and, of course, the involvement of other parties, specifically, China. Once again, peninsular affairs quickly and inextricably become regional ones.

I previously examined some obstacles to replacing the Korean War Armistice Agreement with a formal peace treaty, including: 1) ongoing U.S.-China trade disputes obstructing cooperation in other areas, 2) the need to normalize diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang, which requires Senate approval — approval the Senate is loath to give without some major concessions on Pyongyang’s part — and 3) the important outstanding question, namely, peace in exchange for what? These obstacles, and others, such as the fate of the UN Command, which supervises the armistice, persist.

Beijing, a signatory to the armistice that would of necessity be involved in a formal peace treaty, has already hinted at its position on the possibility of a trilateral summit and peace declaration. Several days ago, an editorial in the English-language Global Times, read:

If Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang sign a declaration to end the war, that would be a good thing. As long as it can restrain the three parties’ hostile moves, it’s better than nothing. But such a declaration cannot be legally linked to the Korean Armistice Agreement. Therefore, it has some degree of uncertainty. If China also signed it, the stability of the peace agreement would be more secure. There are some analyses in the South Korean media that suggest the peace treaty will be signed by the US, South and North Korea, leaving China marginalized. That may not be the case. China has a strong influence on Korean Peninsula affairs. Even when Beijing does not speak a word, it has larger weight on the situation than Seoul, which is busy traveling around. 

The editorial highlights that even if a three-way meeting does occur (and it may not), much else needs to be achieved. The Blue House itself acknowledged that Beijing could be left out of a peace declaration, but not a peace treaty. In sum, the White House may craft commemorative coins for a summit that is yet to occur, the Blue House can release a book commemorating Moon’s first year in office as a peacemaker before peace has been established, and summit declarations may abound, but the hard stuff of history does not budge so quickly.