Two days have passed since the much-vaunted historic summit in Singapore between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, but its real importance—as a step in an ongoing process—has already made clear the fluidity of the current relationships between states in Asia, and the need to better understand what this will bring in the short term.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to South Korea, and Thursday he is in Beijing. His haste indicates the real importance of the spectacle we saw in Singapore, even though it did not result in any concrete commitment. Indeed, it is perhaps only by following the course of these follow-up meetings, of which many are planned, that one would be able to better piece together what has changed.
The document signed by Trump and Kim, in fact, does nothing but reaffirm the participants’ good intentions. The dialogue between the US, North and South Korea, China and Japan will end up clarifying who will be left truly satisfied with the current situation, and who will be left holding the bag.
At this point, the biggest loser appears to have been Japan. Tokyo, despite their official statements brimming with optimism, does not seem to like what is happening, and Wednesday Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—who has his own share of headaches on the domestic front—has said again that he was ready to meet with Kim. A direct meeting with Kim, Abe said, is the best way to solve the old issue of Japanese citizens abducted to North Korea: “I am firmly resolved to solve the issue at my own responsibility,” by speaking directly with North Korea.
Immediately after Trump’s meeting with Kim, Abe had a half-hour phone call with Trump, asking to be informed in detail about the day’s talks at Sentosa. Later, he thanked the American president for having pointed out, during his 40-minute one-on-one dialogue with Kim, the necessity to find a solution in the case of the Japanese abductees.
Abe’s expression of thanks was rather icy, a sign that from Tokyo, the situation is not seen as very positive. If we also take into account Trump’s announcement of the end of Washington’s military exercises with Seoul, the worries of the Japanese come into even starker relief. Since Abe has to try to make the best of a bad hand, the Japanese defense minister was the one who gave voice to his administration’s skepticism.
According to Itsunori Onodera, “U.S.-South Korea military exercises play a very important role for national security in East Asia.” For Tokyo, in short, things have gone back to the great distrust of Washington that was evident after the collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is, perhaps, why Abe wants to talk to Kim directly, a move that might be meant to cover his intention to bypass the mediation of the White House. Tokyo has already notified Pyongyang of their wish: Abe wants to hurry, because the situation in play is rather complex.
As for Pompeo’s travels, Wednesday he was in Seoul to meet with President Moon Jae-in in an attempt to find a common framework for the next steps in relation to North Korea, although the hot topic seems to be the end of the military exercises.
The issue appears not so much thorny as inscrutable. “At this moment, we need to figure out president Trump’s accurate meaning and intention,” said Kim Eui-kyeom, the spokesman for the South Korean president.
But South Korea was at pains to specify that they were not showing any opposition—even though one of the clearest messages in Moon’s campaign was that he would be able to “say no” even to the Americans. “As long as North Korea and the United States are engaged in serious discussions on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the start of the peace process, we believe we have to consider various ways to continue this dialogue,” the spokesperson added.
After Seoul, Pompeo turns to Beijing, where “China hopes that the two countries will enhance understanding, manage and control differences and expand cooperation through Pompeo’s visit, pushing forward bilateral relations to keep developing on the right track,” announced the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Geng Shuang.
Surely, China will want to know the details that have not been made public from Singapore, but there is also another bone of contention between the US and China at the moment, beside the tariffs: namely the opening of new offices of the American Institute in Taipei, essentially a sort of de facto US embassy.
Beijing is prone to get easily riled up by such things, and Washington is well aware of this: it could be a move intended to balance out the end of the military exercises. In this diplomatic chaos, Trump, as always, is the one who is convinced he has the best ideas. Upon landing in the US, he tweeted that from now on North Korea is no longer a danger to the world, in stark contrast to how it was during Obama’s presidency. As Mr. President tweeted, we should all stay calm and “sleep well tonight.”