Singapore Summit: Sponsored By...
One needn’t read between the lines with too perspicacious an eye to see exactly who’s leaving this Singapore Summit as the affair’s main beneficiary. To me, that somewhat unexpected entity (or, in this case, that unexpected country) is glaringly and forebodingly clear.
A hint, however, as to who exactly this winning country is might be of some use. It will prove especially useful for those of us disinclined toward further scrutiny, for those of us wanting only to celebrate this apparent end to a decades-long cause célèbre on the Korean peninsula. I urge you, though, we must not hesitate to pause before we cheer. While we want to extol what appears to be a diminution of imminent danger along the Pacific rim, a softening of violent rhetoric on Twitter, a sublimation of belligerence and coarse talk, and a potential liberalization of the world’s last gulag state, we must look through the lens at the meeting’s outcome with a sober and discerning eye. Only then can we see who has truly gained from this summit and who has lost.
After all, many are the minds on this first day after the summit that have been intoxicated in a dangerous way. Those prone to gulping up this administration to its dregs are letting their fantasies go straight to their head. Many are awakening in a happy fog of complacency, thinking that America—in her handling of Kim Jong-un in particular and the Korean peninsula at large—has won the game. Many are sanguine in thinking about what this meeting will bring, but like lipstick on a pig, the façade is just that and the rosiness ill-applied; above all, we mustn’t forget that Kim is still Kim—a murderous, gluttonous, illiberal brat. In other words, he’s the pig. Yet because of our eternal optimism and our yearning for peace and a détente, our judgement has become clouded to this fact.
Our skepticism as it pertains to Kim—healthy and justly applied, as it was—seems to have been suspended for the time. Our pointed criticisms of him and his barbarically cruel regime have made dull. And, in their absence, in the case of the former, or because of their bluntness, in that of the latter, we’ve taken to overlooking what’s really happening and what’s bound to continue happening in the Far East.
This international inebriation swept the world after watching on its television sets last night Kim Jong-un—the despotic little ruler of North Korea—and Donald Trump—the at times demagogic head of the American state—embrace each other for the first time. It was an embrace for the ages, or so we were told—a veritable handshake for the history books. More than anything else, it was a meeting of intractable and tempestuous foes for which the West had so long hoped. On top of that, it was a conference whose consummation allowed the world to breathe, if only for a moment, a long overdue sigh of relief.
Until last night, any feasible sense of security, let alone one of comity that might exist between America and North Korea seemed a pipe dream. Not since the mid-twentieth century have tensions between the two nations been so high. Through nearly a dozen administrations, from that of Truman—during which our troops fought and retreated at the reservoir of Chosin—to that of Clinton—during which we attempted and failed at financial incentives and rapprochement—all efforts to engage with North Korea have collapsed. Add to the timeline of this fraught and unpropitious history our own anxiety-ridden present day.
I know how quickly time has moved, but it was just shy of a year ago that Kim was calling Trump a dotard and threatening a nuclear first strike on South Korea or Guam or both. The latter, in responding to the aptly named “Little Rocket Man” himself played no small part in raising the stakes. With his “tough” language, as he likes to call it, President Trump evoked images of an impending Armageddon. He spoke of a retributive nuclear strike against the North Korea the “likes of which the world has never seen” should Kim’s baleful threats persist. The very thought of Trump’s colorful imagery had even Seventh Day Adventists shaking in their boots. The apocalyptic portrait that he painted caught everyone (not excluding his own staff) by surprise when he uttered his three infamous words “fire and fury”. And while today we might joke about them (especially since they’ve been splashed all over Michael Wolff’s tawdry book of the same name) when first Trump said them, the moment felt less like a threat and more like a prophecy.
All that being said, the fact that because of this summit we’ve stepped away from this precipice is worth noting. It marks an incredible an unlikely detumescence. That can’t be emphasized enough. Yet, in sniffing the saccharine aromas that have been wafting from Singapore to America after this event, most observers have failed to notice what was happening behind the scenes. Painted on the wall behind the podium from which Trump and Kim spoke was a converging American and North Korean flag, but absent from the artwork was the signature of the true sponsor of this summit: That sponsor, and in a word, the real winner of this new relationship between America and North Korea is none other than China.
As this summit culminates, no country’s interests are better served than those of China. In effect, the People’s Republic got everything for which it might’ve hoped. It turns out that the very essence of the “deal” that Trump brokered with Kim is nothing more than a page torn directly out of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s book. It’s almost as if Xi gave to Trump and to Kim his political wish list—a wish list within whose margins Xi, as the newly christened Chinese autocrat for life, could enumerate exactly the things he wanted to come of this summit. All Trump and Kim had to do was arrive on the island, smile for the camera, act their respective parts, and check off the boxes that Xi gave them.
Xi Jinping, in the lead-up to this meeting, certainly felt himself to be in a delicate position. Essentially, he was straddling two roles—that of intermediary and that of interloper. In his capacity as the first, he wanted to be the medium through which Kim received Trump, and vice versa. Being that his country is one of North Korea’s few commercial partners in the world, Xi wanted to re-establish and then insure the inviolability of his financial assets across the Yalu. This meant forging a conciliatory tone in Trump. Aside from Russia, Brazil, and to a lesser degree, France, North Korea is almost exclusively reliant upon the importation of Chinese commodities and goods. Not only is this lucrative for China and its state-run industries, but it doubles to maintain in North Korea something of an economically dependent state. China, for all intents and purposes, plays its role as Manchurian suzerain, and it plays it well. And as with any state-sponsored industry, a state-sponsored military is never far behind. This means that China’s interests in Korea are at least two-fold.
At the same time, though, as he was pushing for his own country’s best interests in the region (be they political, economic, militant, or otherwise) Xi didn’t want to be seen as a man imposing his will during a seminal moment. Seldom can it be said of Xi that he’s someone who’ll grip your attention; forever demure with a ready but unrevealing grin, Xi didn’t want to steal the spotlight. The last thing he wanted was to be seen as someone meddling where he belonged not, stepping—as it were—on Trump or Kim’s toes, yet his future prospects required that he be involved. Xi was careful to toe this line. Between these two bumptious and fiercely independently-minded heads of state, Xi had to apply a sort of “soft” paternalism in bringing together Trump and Kim and implanting his interests. Above all, he needed to assert his influence without looking like a nuisance.
In Kim’s preparation for the meeting, however, the “softness” of Xi’s paternalism wasn’t all that subtle. In the lead-up to yesterday’s summit, Kim had actually met with Xi on multiple occasions. Recognizing his country’s fealty to China, Kim took seriously Xi’s recommendations and put them to work. It’s from this backdrop that Kim introduced to the world the notion of a “dual freeze”.
A “dual freeze”, in the parlance of the day, has nothing to do with fire nor fury nor instituting a renascent cold war. We thank God for that. In fact, it hasn’t a thing to do with temperature nor metaphor. It’s actually China’s preferred route to ensure stability on the Korean peninsula and to weaken America’s military capacity therein. The first and more preponderant aspect of the so-called “dual freeze” is the de-nuclearization of the North Korean state. The Kim regime is to “freeze” its relentless testing of ICBMs and atomic bombs and to begin disintegrating its nuclear proliferation sites. This means no further testing above nor below the ground. This is the absolutely necessary concession without which the agreement couldn’t viably be made. It’s the bedrock upon which every other pillar of the summit will ultimately stand or fall.
But that accounts for just one part of the dual freeze. The other tip of that iceberg comes courtesy of America. In exchange for the cessation of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development scheme, America will end its joint military exercises on the peninsula. These exercises, performed with the South Korean armed forces, are intended to instill in our troops military preparedness for whatever might come their way. Not only are they used as deterrents to North Korea (which has a nasty little tendency for riling up skirmishes as it stands athwart the thirty-eighth parallel) but also as signals to China. These joint exercises, or “war games” as Trump appropriated the term from Kim, serve as a reminder to China that America is present, is powerful, and is quite capable of checking any unwelcome ambitions.
In every conceivable way, China is the victor. To Xi go the spoils. North Korea will once again be open for Chinese business. Xi will tighten his grip on the North Korean economy, from whom the he can expect a biddable state. American troops will begin their withdrawal. Trump has no desire to keep them abroad, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in has no great love for them being ominously present in his cities and about his towns. A South Korean military, which has proven itself wholly uninterested in combat readiness, probably also will shrink. The new age of Chinese hegemony is bound to begin.