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Opinion

DMZ 'surprise' summit should not have been a surprise

US, China, and North Korea seem to be tacitly coordinating moves

| North Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump's meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas on June 30 took the world by surprise.

It shouldn't have. It was the outcome of what appears to have been a very visible and well-choreographed exchange of diplomatic signals over the past few weeks that represented a multilateral effort among the regional powers to restart stalled talks over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

This coordinated push suggests that the U.S., China and other regional powers broadly agree now on jointly pursuing a slow-and-steady diplomatic approach to defusing the North Korean nuclear issue.

A pivotal point came on June 20 when Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first ever visit to North Korea. Xi's clear intention was to encourage a resumption of the talks between Washington and Pyongyang in hopes that Trump would ease his aggressive trade policy with China in return.

The U.S. President duly delivered on this at the G-20 summit in Osaka on June 29 by reversing his earlier decision to bar U.S. companies from delivering supplies to Huawei on national security grounds, while postponing scheduled tariffs on $300 billion worth of Chinese imports.

Xi's trip to North Korea came after Kim sent birthday greetings to Trump on June 14 and Trump responded a week later with an "excellent" letter that probably suggested the meeting at the DMZ during Trump's scheduled trip to South Korea after the G-20 summit. Trump's subsequent "impromptu" tweet from the G-20 summit inviting Kim to a DMZ rendezvous was a theatrical gesture when both surely knew what was coming.

Xi, Kim and Trump all have an interest in seeing talks resume over North Korea's nuclear program after the collapse of the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi in February.

Xi's trip to Pyongyang was a follow-up to the first summit meeting between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in late April. Both China and Russia want to retain influence in their Korean backyard and have cooperated since Trump and Kim made their initial moves toward rapprochement last year.

Beijing and Moscow aim to maintain stability in Northeast Asia. They recognize that North Korea's nuclear ambitions are a destabilizing element, which is why they initially agreed to go along with international sanctions against North Korea to register their displeasure. But escalating American sanctions on Pyongyang have raised fears that the U.S. risked pushing Pyongyang into a corner and increased the chances of conflict. More recently, Chinese and Russian companies have been at the receiving end of the U.S. sanctions for trading with North Korea.

China and Russia have become convinced that Kim may be serious about promoting economic reforms and will need some sort of multinational security guarantees if he is to scale back and eventually abandon his nuclear program in return for international assistance. Beijing wants to increase economic engagement with Pyongyang. North Korea is the key link in China's Belt and Road Initiative to establish an overland link with South Korea.

Beijing and Moscow have probably concluded that they need to support Trump's efforts to solve the North Korea nuclear issue now since he could be succeeded in the 2020 elections by a Democratic administration, which would adopt a tougher line on North Korea due to human rights concerns.

The same fear of electoral loss is driving Trump to seek immediate deliverables in resolving the North Korea issue, so he could claim a major diplomatic victory. It is one reason why he now is sidelining John Bolton, his hawkish national security adviser, who pushed Trump to demand in Hanoi that Pyongyang must completely abandon its weapons of mass destruction before easing sanctions. This triggered the summit's collapse.

Kim is eager to reach a deal since the failed Hanoi summit was a major embarrassment. He has since faced sniping by hard-liners in the Rodong Shinmun, the party newspaper, for failing to achieve concessions. Kim may have allowed this to show Washington that he is facing opposition to improving relations with the U.S.

His South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, also wants a resumption of U.S.-North Korean talks, which he helped to midwife last year, because it would boost his popularity, which is faltering over economic discontent.

One notable figure absent from this process has been Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Although he has signaled his willingness to talk to Kim "unconditionally," he appears to be sitting on the fence and waiting on developments. But he will not want to be left behind if regional dialogue accelerates, and miss getting into Trump's good books by failing to support his efforts on North Korea.

With an apparent growing consensus to sustain negotiations, what needs to be done next? Maintaining momentum will be key. Talks with Pyongyang to be led by Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special envoy to North Korea, will likely resume within weeks.

Washington appears to be returning to the incremental approach that was discussed ahead of the Hanoi summit. Biegun has spoken of a "simultaneous step-by-step process."

The U.S. could start by offering humanitarian aid as North Korea faces severe food shortages and a growing tuberculosis crisis. Supplying food and medicine would and show U.S. goodwill and not violate U.N. sanctions. Seoul set an example in June by announcing food aid, the first such assistance it has given in nearly a decade. Trump could also approve Seoul's efforts to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the North Korean factory site jointly run with the South.

Washington might also temporarily accept a moratorium on further nuclear development by North Korea in return for other U.S. concessions, such as establishing liaison offices in each other's capitals that would accompany a possible visit by Kim to the White House.

But these should be seen as only initial steps in reaching a comprehensive agreement for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. Pyongyang would eventually have to list its nuclear facilities and begin closing them.

Moreover, to make any such deal politically palatable in Washington, North Korea will have to make a down payment by handing over some fissile material. In the spirit of cooperation, China and Russia could back multilateral security guarantees and perhaps help dispose of this material.

Critics have dismissed Trump's DMZ meeting with Kim as a reality show stunt, but it could well prove to be otherwise.

John Merrill is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Korean Studies at George Washington University and former head of the Northeast Asia Division in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. State Department. John Burton is a journalist and Korea analyst based in Washington, D.C.

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