A change in the East Asian balance of power? The implications of the Trump-Kim Summit

A change in the East Asian balance of power? The implications of the Trump-Kim Summit

Ever since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the United States and South Korea have formed a liberal democratic alliance, in opposition to the communist North Korea. Although the two allies have encountered ups and downs throughout the decades, recent developments gave hope that a fundamental change to the nature of America’s engagements in the Korean peninsula might occur. However, President Trump’s last two summits with Kim Jong-un have made little progress, and questions concerning how to successfully engage North Korea persist.

A long and painful division

South Korea is now one of the world’s strongest economies, it upholds democratic principles, it showcases a high Human Development Index (HDI) and is a member of some of the most influential international organizations, from the UN and World Bank to the OECD and G20. Despite its successful transition from the painful dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s, one particular issue has been fairly constant for South Korea: how to deal with its complicated neighbour to the north, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea.

The two countries have been divided by ideology, the capitalist South and the communist North, a division that made sense during the Cold War. However, since the fall of the USSR, there have been small hints that the global balance of power is changing. For the Korean peninsula, a rise in the economic strength of China and the relative decline of the US in an increasingly multipolar world have been the defining factors. The main question for the region concerns the evolution of North Korea in the post-Cold War world: the country has received small amounts of aid from China and Russia, yet it did not change the planned nature of its economy and remained fiercely ideological and belligerent. This poses a problem for the US-led alliance in the region, and potentially for China too.

South Korea lacks an ability to defend itself from the North. Despite the fact that its army is relatively strong, and recent years have shown a slow and gradual increase in the amount of military responsibilities the country has to take over from the US, the essential nature of the military alliance between the two countries has remained undeniable, as public opinion polls show. North Korea’s aggressive military behaviour has often led to skirmishes and damning statements from their southern neighbours, and from Japan and the US, yet recent developments between President Donald Trump and President Kim Jong-un have led many to believe there is a possibility for peace. As expected, this possibility has led to both reactions of hope and scepticism, as it would most likely lead to a considerable change in the regional balance of power, and potentially to a unified Korea. The gamble of the Trump administration is that Obama’s strategy of “strategic patience” had failed, and that his strategy of pressuring North Korea to come to the negotiating table had worked. Nevertheless, the US President has little to show so far, other than two unfruitful summits with Kim.

North Korea has a history of hinting that it’s open to negotiations

This is not the first time North Korea comes to the negotiating table, giving signs that it is more than willing to abandon its belligerent actions and rhetoric in exchange for some kind of aid, be it financial or diplomatic, from its Western critics. During the 1990s, the North pursued this exact strategy with the Clinton Administration. The Americans were on for a rude awakening when they found out that North Korea did not abide by many of its promises, and kept its nuclear program going. Talks broke down, and during the Bush and Obama administrations, the US began its strategy of “strategic patience”, essentially hoping that the North Korean regime would collapse due to its poor economy and lack of international support. Time had passed, and the North rarely gave in, instead frustrations in Washington only grew.

The DPRK did not collapse, however, it did encounter its own internal regime change, with KimJong-un taking over from Kim Jong-Il. The new leader, in an attempt to find his own voice, made various fiery criticisms of the US and increased the number of missile tests his country would perform. Doing this has increased global attention for the DPRK and underlined the fact that North Korea’s technological development is advancing faster than many Westerners thought. This allowed him to eventually win a meeting with the US President and negotiate a potential stop to his country’s aggressive behaviour. Nevertheless, questions persist in the West if this is not just a tactic to win time and political support, in order to improve North Korea’s own geopolitical standing in East Asia.

Can Kim (or Trump) be trusted?

One thing that Trump has been adamant about is the need for change in the nature of the US-South Korea relationship. The main issue that frustrates Trump is the cost of the alliance: the US has 28,500 troops in the peninsula, with the goal of aiding the South Koreans in case of an eventual North Korean attack. The US contributes almost $1.1 billion to this security agreement, while the South adds its own $765 million. Trump is known to often inflate these numbers in order to create a distorted impression that the United States is contributing too much to the security of the peninsula, while the South is simply benefiting from this and not paying its fair share. Despite such claims often being debunked, they have not stopped the US President from pushing the South to increase its level of contributions to the alliance. South Korea has conformed to this demand in general, and the plans for increasing its military capacities were greenlit by its Defence Ministry. These developments do raise questions concerning what appears to be a paradoxical situation in the peninsula: Trump is pressing South Korea to defend itself from their North Korean rival, however, at the same time, he boasts of his diplomatic success in convincing the North to cease from antagonizing the South. The approach of the US President has been erratic, and it is unclear what his primary aim is, a strong and capable South or a disarmed North.

After months of build-up, and after a Singapore summit that created the impression of a working relationship but was criticized for its lack of substance, another summit took place last week in Hanoi. Many have expected the Vietnam meetup to be a continuation of the talks in Singapore, with hopes of a potential “end to the Korean War” being proclaimed by the two leaders. Nevertheless, the summit fell flat, and ended early, with Trump retreating due to Kim’s request on lifting all sanctions in exchange for less-than-complete denuclearization. With such a media build-up, and even people talking about a potential Nobel Peace Prize for the two leaders, it is normal to question the direction of the Trump-Kim relationship. What are the two aiming for? Kim seems unwilling to back down on his military plans, and Trump seems unable to win the North Korean leader with diplomacy. It can also be argued that bellicose rhetoric has served its purpose, since Kim is willing to talk, and that any future threats in order to gain concessions would be rather risky. In this case, many are becoming increasingly convinced that the Trump-Kim friendship is just for show, as their countries fail to reach palpable agreements.

The current US administration doesn’t seem able to strike a deal

President Trump has been very vocal about his attempts to convince the DPRK to disarm. He repeatedly bragged about his rhetorical pleasantries with Kim and created a sense in Washington that he might come to a historic conclusion this week in Hanoi. Instead, what people got was yet another failure on the US administration to obtain something workable, and the status quo in the Korean peninsula might very well persist given the circumstances. Trump has had a very difficult first term, with controversies at every corner. Putting an end to North Korea’s nuclearization and bringing peace in the Korean peninsula might be his saving grace. So far however, as it has been the case, the US President has been very vocal about his plans and intentions, yet he has shown the public very little concrete evidence that would guarantee him a place in the history books.


Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Alin Barbantan

Alin Barbantan is a Foreign Affairs and International Relations analyst with specialisation in History and Politics. Regional specialisation on NATO and East Asia. He is currently an international relations PhD student at the UCL Institute of the Americas on hegemony, burden-sharing and alliance "free riding". MA from UCL, BA from Queen Mary, University of London. Published research on country case studies for international organisations concerning democratisation and anti-corruption. Worked, studied, and did on-location research in diverse environments.