Geopolitical Implications of a New Era on the Korean Peninsula
The Trump administration has gone through a remarkable shift in its approach to North Korea, culminating in an initial embrace of summit diplomacy. That shift, however, may have opened a Pandora’s box that will have profound implications not just for the future of the Korean Peninsula, but for Japan, China, and Russia as well. This conference addressed the broader geopolitical consequences of diplomatic success and failure with Pyongyang.
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The Trump administration has gone through a remarkable shift in its approach to North Korea, culminating in an initial embrace of summit diplomacy. That shift, however, may have opened a Pandora’s box that will have profound implications not just for the future of the Korean Peninsula, but for Japan, China, and Russia as well. What is certain is that engagement with Pyongyang has already impacted East Asia’s geopolitics and will continue to do so moving forward.
This conference addressed the broader geopolitical consequences of diplomatic success and failure with Pyongyang, including the impact on alliance relationships and the future of U.S. power in the region.
Jean H. Lee
“They (North Korea State media) tend not to announce events that are going to happen, and we are starting to see a change in how North Korea puts out its information, it’s certainly putting out information more quickly, but this to me indicates that they are fairly confident that they’re going to get what they want at this upcoming summit. So, the question is what is that and what are the implications of that?”
“[It’s] absolutely essential that the U.S. government use these next few weeks to nail down a very clear roadmap of what’s going to happen, not only at this summit, but in the weeks and months and years ahead. Because that is what we didn’t have from the last summit… [and] it’s absolutely important that with this next summit we have more than just a handshake, that we have a very clear set of steps. We need to know exactly what steps the North Koreans are going to take very concretely, and the North Koreans need to know what the United States is going to do in return.”
“I do think that the one concrete thing that North Korea may have gotten is a promise on an end-of-war declaration… Finding some resolution to the Korean War is something that Kim Jong-un’s father and grandfather died without having accomplished… We have to go back and look at what mission was laid out to him when we think about what his ultimate objectives are, and certainly resolving this long-standing issue with the United States is one of them.”
“This is definitely a matter of historical and political significance for Moscow in the vein of many other partner and client states around the world, including ones in which Russia has been very actively engaged in the last few post-soviet decades. But that doesn’t necessarily lead to any particular scenario for Russian involvement going forward. Russia is very flexible, very opportunistic in its current engagement, and I would say seeks a degree of balance that might be surprising given the history.”
“The idea that the Russians have an end game for which they would like to take responsibility is actually higher risk than any of the diplomacy we’ve seen from Moscow towards North Korea thus far. It’s far lower risk for the Russians to wait, to let the Chinese be in a more burden-bearing position from the kind of sponsors and friends from Pyongyang’s side, and to absolutely let U.S. diplomacy play out.”
“The Russian's interest in the Korean peninsula are not inherently incompatible with what the United States would like to see. Continuity, exchange, some type of normalization and obviously a formal end to the war are all consistent with Russia’s desire to be a player in East Asia, both in economic terms… as well as in security and political terms.”
“One of the striking changes within Beijing is that there is really very little sense of urgency about these issues now on China’s part compared to where we were a year ago. And that is for at least two reasons: one is that China is far more concerned with its own domestic issues, in particular its economic situation and issues on its periphery (for example in Xinjiang), and also China is very much involved now with foreign policy issues, particularly with the United States (the ongoing economic spat), but also with the blowback from what it calls its Belt and Road investments around the world… Two, overall China is fairly content with the direction since the original Singapore summit. The fire and fury rhetoric is gone. We are now involved in a long-term protracted process and this is where China is most effective in its diplomacy and where it sees itself maximizing its interest.”
“China is now, broadly speaking, cast as what it would like to be cast as – the adult in the room who stands by… In terms of the relationship with Kim Jong-un, Xi would seem to be in the role that he has sought all along: the deeply interested, constantly consulted great power whose interests must be met, and to which Kim is somewhat more deferential, if not wholly compliant.”
“Success for China, I think, with the next summit is a continuation of the same – a drawn out process.”
“[W]hen you go out into the countryside… the story that you are told is that North Korea was the victim here. That North Korea was attacked by the United States and its puppet allies in South Korea, and that the United States is responsible for all these current day problems in North Korea.”
“There are sort of two what I call fundamental lies that the Kim regime bases its legitimacy on. So number 1 is the idea that the current leader Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, liberated the Korean Peninsula. The second fundamental lie… is that the United States and South Korea started the Korean War. And these are not stories that are fading over time.”
“It’s not just that Kim Jong Un has to justify the nuclear program. It’s also that he needs this external enemy. So if he were to give that up, and if relations with the United States demonstrably improve, and threats of fire and fury are no longer circulating, he needs something in that place. Perhaps that can be economic development, but for reasons of information infiltration, I think there are limits to how far that can go.”
“I would argue that we are where we are today with North Korea – again, hopefully, on the path to success – thanks to the strong alliance relationships that the United States enjoys with both South Korea and Japan. These relationships have allowed our three countries to coordinate closely, to lead the international community, and to stay in lockstep as we address the leading national security issue of our time: not only how do we address the threat posed by North Korea, but also, how do we take advantage of the opportunity, potentially, hopefully, presented by a denuclearized North Korea that has embraced, and is embraced by, the community of nations.”
“Increasingly, our cooperation is not just bilateral, between the United States and Japan and the United States and South Korea, but trilateral among all three of our countries. In areas as diverse as cybersecurity, developing new energy resources, and promoting women’s economic empowerment, our three countries have partnered, and will continue to partner, in meaningful and effective ways.”
“For anyone who follows Northeast Asia, you are well aware that at the moment, ROK-Japan relations are weathering a tough period. And as an ally and friend to both countries, we believe that now, more than ever, it is critical to ensure that there are strong and close relationships between and among our three countries. And this is particularly necessary in the face of shared challenges posed by the DPRK and China... The United States has always pursued ways to strengthen relations between and among our three countries, and we are continuing to do so, although it may not always appear in the press. And I am confident that we will get through this period and remain unified."
“There is a wider shared view that denuclearization probably means the complete elimination of the nuclear weapon capabilities. If we set this as a goal for the forthcoming negotiations, then it cannot be achieved in one phase."
"But given that the window of opportunity for negotiation with North Korea is not going to open forever, I think it is the time for us to accept the reality and maybe we have to have a better design for the phased approach for denuclearization.”
“Now the strategic competition against Russia and China are taking place at the global scale and in order to compete with these strategic competitors, the alliances in the pacific region and NATO in Europe are very critical. It is important that all players in the alliance are equally committed to such architectures.”
“The need for reassurance, of course, never goes away. It’s something that’s part of any alliance relationship. But if North Korea is able to retain this capability, I think demand for reassurance is going to intensify to the point that the United States is not going to be able to just operate as it had before. It’s no longer going to be business as usual and the United States will need to think about how it conducts reassurance, how it reassures its allies in ways a bit more direct, a bit broader than we’ve handled in the past.”
“So much as the Trump administration has been able to describe a strategy for Asia, it has been very much focused on competition with China. Both in the national security strategy and the national defense strategy, competition with great powers, competition with China, was a major theme up to the point where in the national defense strategy it was pointed out that great power competition was now a higher priority than countering international terrorism.”
“For the summit to have a modicum of success, sufficient success from a U.S. policy perspective as I would define it, we should pre-negotiate the specific one or two or three things that we want from the Kim regime that would point toward the direction of denuclearization.”
“If you want to succeed with North Korea, plan for failure.”
“A fear is that we lose our geopolitical influence that we’ve had since we had victory in World War II, that we actually see this is triggering a retrenchment and the rise of China and its influence and this is something even bigger. That’s a geopolitical fear that is behind a lot of the criticism and policy of thinking about [North Korea].”
"The impasse reflects a persisting tension in U.S. policy — whether the objective toward “rogue” states should be to change their regimes’ behavior or to change the regimes themselves. Should nuclear diplomacy be transactional, focused narrowly on the discrete nuclear challenge, or transformational, comprehensively addressing these regimes’ objectionable behavior?"
11:00-11:45 Geopolitical implications of diplomatic success with North Korea: Impact on China, Russia, and South Korea
Robert Daly, Director, Kissinger Institute, Wilson Center
Matthew Rojansky, Director, Kennan Institute, Wilson Center
Jean Lee, Director, Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy, Wilson Center
Moderator: Katie Stallard-Blanchette, Fellow, Wilson Center
12:00-12:45 Luncheon Speaker: Marc Knapper, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Japan and Korea
1:00-2:15 Geopolitical implications of diplomatic failure with North Korea: Impact on Japan and the United States
Nobumasa Akiyama, Professor, School of International and Public Policy, Hitotsubashi University
Abraham Denmark, Director, Asia Program, Wilson Center
Patrick Cronin, Chair for Asia-Pacific Security, Hudson Institute
Moderator: Shihoko Goto, Deputy Director for Geoeconomics and the Senior Northeast Asia Associate, Wilson Center
2:30-3:45 Considering Options for a Way Forward
Yoshihide Soeya, Professor, Department of Political Science, Keio University
Mark Lippert, Vice President, Boeing International and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea
Robert Litwak, Senior Vice President and Director of International Security Studies, Wilson Center
Moderator: Abraham Denmark, Director, Asia Program, Wilson Center
The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region. Read more
Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy
The Center for Korean History and Public Policy was established in 2015 with the generous support of the Hyundai Motor Company and the Korea Foundation to provide a coherent, long-term platform for improving historical understanding of Korea and informing the public policy debate on the Korean peninsula in the United States and beyond. Read more
Kissinger Institute on China and the United States
The mission of Kissinger Institute on China and the United States is to ensure that informed engagement remains the cornerstone of U.S.-China relations. Read more
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange. Read more