Unless Donald Trump or Kim Jong-un flip-flop again, the eagerly anticipated and highly significant summit between the leaders of the US and North Korea will take place on June 12 in Singapore as scheduled.
Just as Kim is heading into the pending talks, news has got out that he has suddenly ordered a massive overhaul of the military leadership of his country.
On his orders, three top generals, namely Kim Jong-gak, director of the General Political Bureau of the North Korean army; Pak Yong-sik, the first vice minister of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces; and Ri Myong-su, the chief of the general staff, were removed from office immediately and succeeded by their deputies.
The sudden removal of the powerful, seasoned and hawkish generals may indicate that Kim Jong-un is set on giving up his nuclear weapons.
In order to do that, he had to clear the last major obstacles to his denuclearization program, i.e. the hardline military leaders who were in charge of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.
Besides, by firing the hawkish generals, Kim can also clear the way for the subsequent massive disarmament of the North Korean army once he manages to cut a deal with Trump over denuclearization.
As far as the three new kids on the block are concerned, they are not only substantially younger, but are also relatively moderate and conciliatory compared to their predecessors.
For instance, Kim Su-gil, the new director of the General Political Bureau, is aged 63, some 20 years younger than his former superior.
Moreover, as the former chief of the committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in Pyongyang, Kim had been charged with overseeing economic reforms in the country.
Meanwhile, No Kwang-chol, the newly designated first vice minister of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, is only in his 30s like his paramount leader Kim Jong-un.
No’s appointment speaks volumes about Kim’s determination to trade his nuclear weapons for economic aid from the West.
It is beyond doubt that Kim’s initiative to erase hardliners in the army is a step in the right direction and would facilitate the official ending of the state of war on the Korean Peninsula since 1953.
However, the problem is, how will Kim Jong-un, who has already promised to give up his nukes and fired all his hawkish generals, still be able to negotiate a deal on favorable terms with the US, which is armed to the teeth, and which now appears to be holding all the cards?
Worse still, sitting at the other side of the negotiation table is the highly volatile and unpredictable President Trump.
It is said that what Pyongyang is seeking is a “comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible” guarantee of security from Washington.
That said, even if Trump agrees to provide that guarantee, how can Kim be sure that the US leader, who has already dropped out of the Paris Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear deal without a moment’s hesitation, will keep his word and deliver his promise?
Perhaps the answer lies in Kim’s two consecutive visits to Beijing in May.
The fact that Kim suddenly ditched his previous cold shoulder to Beijing and eagerly reached out to President Xi Jinping to mend fences and secure his support suggests that he is a very flexible and resourceful leader.
Beijing’s backing may prove the ace up Kim’s sleeve at the negotiation table against Trump. It is because at the end of the day, North Korea can by no means strike a bargain with the US on equal terms without China’s full support.
And China’s stance on the issue is something that the US cannot afford to ignore.
However, ironically, what is truly tricky about the upcoming Trump-Kim summit is the role of Beijing.
The latest news has it that South Korean president Moon Jae-in is likely to join the talks and witness the conclusion of an official peace treaty between the US and North Korea to end the Korean War.
Yet according to a recent editorial in the Global Times, an official mouthpiece of Beijing, any peace treaty to officially end the Korean War without China’s signature won’t be legally valid.
As such, what we have here is a delicate and precarious situation: while tensions between North Korea and the US have been quickly easing off, those between Beijing and Washington are still hgih, particularly over their trade disputes.
And the escalating Sino-US tensions would undoubtedly add extra variables to not only the outcome of the Trump-Kim summit but also the entire geopolitical landscape of East Asia.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 6
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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