During a visit to South Korea, President Donald Trump traveled to the Demilitarized Zone for an impromptu meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The encounter marks a stark turn in relations between the countries; after a February summit in Hanoi saw talks collapse, observers on both sides were taken aback that such a reunion could occur.
Kim expressed his surprise at President Trump’s apparently spontaneous invitation, saying, “I believe this is an expression of his willingness to eliminate all the unfortunate past and open a new future.”
Despite warm words from both parties, doubt remains over whether this historic meeting is the beginning of a new chapter or just a waiting game on behalf of the NK dictator. While South Korean President Moon Jae-in believes the former, strategists are questioning whether Kim is just trying to maintain the status quo in the hope that China may be willing to restore support in the future.
During the G20 summit, President Trump met with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping to discuss the ongoing and costly trade war between the two superpowers. For now, the threat of an additional $300 billion in tariffs has been taken off the table, as the leaders agreed to work toward a more equitable solution. But was this minor breakthrough actually the event that sparked the meeting in the DMZ?
China has long acted as a buffer for North Korea; any international finagling has been able to go ahead only with the cooperation of the hermit state’s closest ally and neighbor. This is NK’s golden ticket. Yet, the Chinese government also gets something out of the deal.
Being the only nation that can control what is essentially an outsider state that acts unbound by international laws, China can use Kim as an implicit threat to be wielded in negotiations and summits. The wider world has neither the confidence nor the cooperation of the North Korean government, making China the only feasible intermediary. This gives the Middle Kingdom a uniquely powerful tool.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is no dummy. He knows that international games are being played, and that not all the cards on the table are what they appear to be. Since the beginning of Trump’s outreach to his often-hostile neighbor, Moon has been a firm backer of the U.S. position. He said, “President Trump is the maker of peace in the Korean Peninsula,” and this may yet be the case.
To bring peace in this area would be a legacy that no future administration could tear apart. The stakes are high for the Korean people on both sides of the DMZ, for global peace, and perhaps, most immediately, for President Donald J. Trump.
It is not always possible to deal with countries on a one-to-one basis; international communities need to be taken into account. With the latest breakthrough between the U.S. and North Korea, it is becoming apparent that the road gets either rockier or smoother depending on how Sino-American relations are progressing.
It can be no coincidence that Trump extended the hand of friendship to Kim Jong Un directly after a successful meeting with the Chinese Premier. Despite media exhortations that the president doesn’t understand global politics, it would appear Trump has an intuitive knack for knowing when to push and when to stay. Once again, it looks like someone is playing chess while everyone else is unpacking their checkers pieces.
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