The summit between President Trump and the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, has come and gone in a flurry of photographs and a very short and very vague agreed statement. The meeting was largely symbolic and strict U.N. sanctions remain in place, but reduced tensions could eventually create an environment for stronger trade links between North Korea and China, Russia, and South Korea.
A Small Step Forward
If the momentum from the summit is maintained, it could eventually breathe life into North Korea’s underdeveloped economy over the next five to ten years. North Korea’s oil demand has fallen from nearly 80,000 b/d at the end of the Cold War to an estimated 15,000 b/d in 2017. Though Pyongyang’s integration into the global economy remains a remote hope, there would be room for its oil consumption to grow.
Instead of focusing on the “who won” and “who lost” narrative that has been taken up in the press, what follows is a short analysis on what the summit, and the individual statements afterwards by each country, mean for: a) the future of U.S.-North Korea relations and the stability of East Asia, b) U.S. commitments to treaty allies in other parts of the world, particularly NATO members who have a summit coming up in July, and c) for ongoing willingness of the U.S. to support non-treaty partners in the Middle East against Iran and non-state actors.
Washington is no closer to its desire to have North Korea verifiably and irreversibly eliminate its nuclear weapon and long-range missile programs than it was before the summit meeting. The brief statement from the two leaders merely had Kim Jong-un “reaffirm[ing] his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, several days after the summit, indicated that some beginning steps to reducing the North Korean arsenal may begin by the end of President Trump’s first term – January 2021. Despite North Korean statements to the contrary on June 13, there is nothing in the statement indicating that the United States would be lifting sanctions anytime soon. President Trump reiterated that sentiment several days after the meeting.
However, even without a formal lifting of sanctions by either Washington or the United Nations, the lessening of tensions between the two states likely will lead to an unofficial easing by states key to North Korea’s trade: China, Russia, and South Korea. The result, then, is a lessening of tensions compared to six months ago. Talks regarding nuclear weapons are likely to be slow and show little progress. In the meanwhile, however, U.S. alliance relations with South Korea are showing signs of loosening as President Trump unexpectedly froze U.S.-South Korean military exercises and again expressed his concerns that military alliance commitments are costly to Washington. Japan will be watching on whether President Trump’s concerns over alliance costs continues to escalate, particularly if pushed by Pyongyang in a run-up to a second summit perhaps in Washington in the coming year. These are the relationships to watch in the coming year – those of Washington and its East Asian treaty allies. However, there is also that chance that a single triggering event could move the situation right back to severe tensions.
The next question is whether President Trump’s concerns about U.S. expenditures on alliance commitments coupled with the offer of a summit with another authoritarian leader – in this case President Putin – could derail the NATO summit in July. The very public disagreements between the United States and its G-7 partners (all but one of which are NATO members) are not a good harbinger.
The one set of partners that the Trump administration seems comfortable with are the Gulf Arab states, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Despite the lack of formal defense treaty commitments, President Trump has continued to back their efforts in Yemen, Syria, and against Iran more directly. In these cases, monetary burden-sharing does not appear to be of concern, even though the U.S. continues to expend significant resources to support forward-based forces in Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait and there are no formal cost-sharing arrangements or host-nation support agreements as there are with NATO allies or Japan and North Korea. Look for these convergences of interests to remain strong.