The widely anticipated proposed meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump is just over one month away, with the countries’ ongoing diplomatic jostling continuing unabated in the lead-up.
The geopolitical environment was further shaken up recently by the unexpected revelation that Mr Kim had made the journey to the Chinese capital of Beijing to meet with President Xi Jinping, his first trip outside the isolationist state since he inherited power in 2011.
In the wake of that event, Griffith University hosted a public forum featuring renowned international Korea experts Scott Snyder and Duyeon Kim, moderated by Griffith Business School’s Dean (Research), Professor Andrew O’Neil.
Prior to the forum, Professor O’Neil, Mr Snyder and Ms Kim took part in a workshop canvassing the breadth of interests at play in Korean-based international diplomacy, as well as potential outcomes of not only the Trump-Kim meeting, but also Mr Kim’s planned summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27.
“I think we had some interesting discussion about how Australia views peninsular issues,” Mr Snyder said of the workshop event.
“On the one hand, north-east Asia’s a big trade partner for Australia but, on the other hand, there’s this ‘alliance framework’ that seems to be very important in terms of the ways that Australians look at global conflict.”
During the forum’s wide-ranging discussion, which took place at the State Library of Queensland, in South Bank, the discussion turned to the shifting dynamics of power and politics along the Korean Peninsula, freshly informed by the injection of China into the tumultuous equation.
“I think it’s very significant that [the Kim-Xi meeting] occurred prior to the inter-Korea summit and the possible Trump-Kim meeting in May, because it changes the framing and the context,” Mr Snyder said.
“I think that the fact that Kim went and met with Xi pushes forward the geopolitical dimension of whatever happens at both summits.
“It just reminds everybody that China is a stakeholder, and I think that the Chinese wanted to send that message, and needed to send that message.
“The North Koreans also demonstrated actually that they recognise that they might need the Chinese, really, as back-up, in case things don’t quite go right in the unfolding summitry that they have planned with South Korea and the United States.”
Ms Kim agreed: “It would just send a reminder to Washington that Beijing and Pyongyang are on the same side.
“In terms of shaping outcomes, I think it’s pretty clear both where Washington wants to go, and where Pyongyang wants to go on the nuclear issue, and they are completely different paths.
“So where Beijing comes into play is that Beijing and Pyongyang’s vision and interests align when it comes to elements like a peace treaty, like US-South Korean military exercises, like their desire to remove US forces from the Korean peninsula – on those elements, their interests align.
“So perhaps – we don’t know, but perhaps – Pyongyang and Beijing might have discussed a game plan on how to go about achieving those goals, but I don’t think that Kim Jong-un really needs to seek Beijing’s advice or guidelines or marching orders, because I think Kim Jong-un has shown that he is confident enough to enter into these two summits with his own ideas and his own strategy.”
Importantly, Mr Snyder said, the meeting made clear the message that countries such as the US “really shouldn’t think about trying to find solutions on the Korean peninsula without considering Chinese interests”.
“At the beginning of the year, when Kim Jong-un made his New Year’s speech, he talked positively about improving the relationship with South Korea; there was a more negative tone to what he said about the United States – but China was left out entirely,” he explained.
“And then the way that diplomacy unfolded around the Olympics, China was really on the sidelines. So it’s really just a reminder and a re-orienter in terms of reasserting that China is a player and that they have interests that are also going to have to be taken into account.
“It complicates how North and South Korea interact with each other, and it also potentially complicates the way that Trump and Kim might interact.”
Those complications, Ms Kim said, would potentially have far-reaching and serious consequences, should Washington not take kindly to the diplomatic summit process – or its ultimate outcomes.
And, with China’s support for North Korea now firmly established in the public consciousness, the prospect of mutual amiability between the dispute’s political stakeholders may be more nebulous than the international community would like.
“The concerning thing is that if the Trump-Kim summit does not result in the manner of fashion and the way that President Trump and his White House aides want it to go, then they might jump to serious considerations of military measures,” Ms Kim said.
“This is where, for many on the outside – whether scholars or experts and civil society even – the White House is faced with three broad choices.
“One is a negotiated settlement, no matter how hard that might be right now; the second would be a Soviet-style, long-term containment isolation; and the final would be military measures.
“The concern is that the Trump administration is entertaining the idea of this potential diplomacy, but if that doesn’t work, they’ll just skip over and jump to military measures.
“I would suspect that particularly South Korean President Moon and his administration will try whatever it can to keep all parties – even Beijing – locked into this diplomatic process that we’re seeing, and it would really have to take an international effort to restrain President Trump and his aides who are for military options.”