A post-North Korea Asia: What will it look like?

June 19, 2018 11:21
US President Donald Trump is now all praises for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo: Bloomberg

Who came out on top in Singapore, where the president of the most powerful nation on earth met the North Korean leader, who has made significant steps towards becoming a nuclear power? The world’s press seems agreed on the answer: Neither the United States nor North Korea but China, a country that wasn’t present but whose shadow loomed large.

Back in Washington, Trump told Americans that they could “sleep well tonight” because the North Korean nuclear issue, which Barack Obama considered “the most dangerous problem” facing the United States, had been solved by him. “I have solved that problem,” he told reporters.

So in Trump’s mind there was no doubt as to who had gotten the most from that Singapore meeting, halfway around the world. But Trump was also generous in his praise of the roles played by the other participants, most particularly by the dictator Kim Jong-un who at 33 is less than half the age of the septuagenarian.

Instead of insulting him as “Little Rocket Man”, Trump now calls him a “very talented man” who took over the running of North Korea when he was only 26.

In fact, Trump at times sounded almost envious of the younger man. “He speaks and his people sit up at attention,” the American leader said. “I want my people to do the same.”

Understandably, the US media is checking what the American side said before the summit and the wording of the joint statement. In particular, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said on May 31 that the US was “committed to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”.

That phrase is so ingrained in the American position that it has been reduced to its initials, CVID. However, the North Koreans have not used the phrase or its initials, but only talked of “complete denuclearization”.

In the June 12 joint statement, only the words “complete denuclearization” appear and Pompeo was pressed by the media on whether Pyongyang accepted “verifiable” and “irreversible”.

The secretary insisted that the words “complete denuclearization” included the concepts of verifiable and irreversible.

Presumably, future meetings with the North Koreans will make it clear if such is indeed the case.

While denuclearization lies at the heart of the North Korean issue, Trump brought up another issue with ramifications for the role of the US in Asia and the future of the alliance system, in particular with South Korea and Japan.

Since the end of World War II, the US has had a policy of stationing troops abroad. In Asia, they are primarily in South Korea, which hosts 28,500 troops and Japan, with 50,000 US soldiers.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had said that he could pull American troops out of overseas military bases because US allies don’t pay their fair share.

North Korea, backed by China, would love to see US troops withdrawn from South Korea. They now seem to be dealing with a US president who agrees with them.

At the June 12 press conference, Trump said the joint US-South Korean military exercises were “very expensive” and, adopting Pyongyang and Beijing’s vocabulary, described them as “provocative”.

Without any discussion with South Korea, or even with his own Pentagon, Trump agreed with Kim to suspend military exercises. This will certainly raise doubts in Seoul about the reliability of the US as an ally. Similar thoughts no doubt will cross the minds of Japanese officials.

While Trump may be primarily focused on the narrow issue of costs, China no doubt is thinking of the long-term future of Asia, particularly Northeast Asia.

Much depends on the way the agreement with North Korea takes shape. Conceivably, Seoul, which under President Moon Jae-in is big on North-South ties, may no longer feel a need for an American security umbrella. But if things don’t work out, the result may be an arms race in East Asia.

Certainly, South Korea and Japan will both have to think seriously about a nuclear option if North Korea is still viewed as hostile.

If Japan and South Korea, American allies, don’t feel secure, then Taiwan, which faces increasing isolation and Chinese pressure, won’t look to the US for its defense. It, too, may pursue a nuclear option. China, which claims the right to use force against Taiwan, may act preemptively.

The Singapore summit marks only the first step. The future of Asia is up for grabs as the US backs off from its role as the guarantor of stability in the region. The outcome is uncertain but people will position themselves for the unknown.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.