by Marco Lupis
What should we expect from the recentsummit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un? The start of genuine denuclearization by Pyongyang? Definitely. A gradual thawing of relations between the last Stalinist regime on Earth and the rest of the world? Probably. North Korea taking the first steps toward democracy and even hinting at respect for the most basic human rights? Probably not, at least not in the short term. The start of the process of reunifying the two Koreas? Perhaps, although that will take time – maybe even a very long time. But it is another question that I, for one, believe will be unexpectedly answered in the affirmative: will the Singapore summit give rise to a new set of geopolitical relationships, balances of power and areas of influence in Asia?
First, it seems certain that Donald Trump will return home with a significant, albeit broadly expected, result: Kim will agree to completely dismantle his nuclear program and arsenal. After all, this is something he has already started to do, and for real this time. Plus, he doesn’t really need it anymore. Kim’s intimidating and terrifying deterrent of a North Korean nuclear threat has had the desired effect: getting a seat at the table with both of the world’s superpowers (first China, now the United States) and getting the international community to accept him as someone they can do business with rather than a crazy, chaotic dictator. Not too shabby, is it?
The other aims set out in the opening paragraph will be much harder for the American president to pull off. The brutally dictatorial nature of North Korea is so deeply embedded in its leadership, its recent history and, above all, the DNA of the ruling Kim family, that it cannot realistically change in the short term without risking the collapse of the regime and the fall of the Kimist “monarchy”. The notion of a speedy reunification of the two Koreas, separated by almost 70 years of political, cultural and, above all, economic division, appears even more fanciful. South Korea is the most ‘connected’ nation in the world, with almost all its inhabitants using the internet. In the North, the internet does not exist; or at least, it is not accessible (except by Kim, his immediate entourage and a few very senior bureaucrats and government departments). There is an intranet, which is totally closed and impenetrable to the rest of the world, and a cell phone network was created just a few years ago – only for domestic calls, though; international ones are blocked and outlawed by the regime.
For the Trump administration, however, the Singapore summit will mark the beginning of something much more important (for America) than the destruction of a few nuclear warheads. It will give Trump the chance to overturn the geopolitical balance in Northeast Asia by dragging North Korea away from the long-standing influence of China and trying to bring it into the orbit of American influence in Asia, alongside Seoul and Tokyo, its traditional and firm allies. Unsurprisingly, as a few observers have pointed out, Beijing has wasted little time reaching out to Kim by hurriedly organizing two state visits, the first of which saw the dictator leave his homeland for the first time since coming to power.
Indeed, the real tug of war at the Singapore summit is not between Kim and Trump, but between Trump and the Chinese president Xi, with the hefty prize of Kim in the middle. And we can be sure that the astute North Korean leader already intends to name his price.