In its second-quarter forecast, Stratfor said that North Korea would alternate between punitive measures and overtures to Seoul in the hopes of maintaining leverage over Washington — efforts that the U.S. president short-circuited with his abrupt cancellation of the planned summit. North Korea's sharp warming in tone since then has put dialogue back on track to try to sort out disagreements over denuclearization.
The on-again, off-again summit meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is now on again, Trump announced June 1. The summit's June 12 date and its Singapore venue remain the same as under the plan that had been developed before last week's announcement by Trump that he was canceling the meeting because of combative rhetoric from the North Korean foreign ministry. The latest about-face came after high-level North Korean official Gen. Kim Yong Choi visited the White House. In the end, the flare-up between the two sides that led to the temporary cancellation may have been as much about the negotiating styles of both Trump and North Korea as any substantive issues between the two sides.
In announcing his renewed willingness to meet with Kim, Trump emphasized that not all of the issues between their countries would be resolved in Singapore. He also appeared to adopt a conciliatory tone toward the North, saying that he no longer wanted to use the term "maximum pressure" to describe the U.S. approach. He added that, because of the recent improvement in relations, the United States would hold off on the "hundreds" of new sanctions it had had prepared against North Korea. He offered that North Korea could transform with Kim still at the helm and expressed hope that the summit could achieve a treaty officially ending the Korean War.
The news out of Washington is sure to bring a sense of relief in South Korea, which had the most to lose over a summit breakdown. The fact that the summit will still be held represents a clear win for Seoul, whose ultimate goal is reunification of the Korean Peninsula. The steady ratcheting up of U.S.-North Korean tensions — with the looming prospect of military conflict — has put South Korea in an impossible position, given its reliance on the United States for defense. Even if the meeting does not result in a breakthrough, ebbing tensions will allow South Korea to continue to pursue dialogue — along with aid and infrastructural links — with North Korea that reduce the possibility of conflict.
The diplomatic warming between the United States and North Korea will be seen positively in China as well. A war on the peninsula would devastate the region, so the easing of tensions is good for China. In addition, Trump himself emphasized that China, alongside South Korea and Japan, would play a major role in North Korea’s economic development. And, perhaps in the interest of counterbalancing the U.S. outreach, North Korea has reached out to China as well. Even if relations once again sour between the United States and North Korea, the international consensus that piling on the pressure was the best response to halting North Korea's burgeoning nuclear program has been broken — giving China more room to play defense for North Korea.
For Japan, however, the resumption of dialogue creates a potential risk. While Tokyo stands to gain from a U.S.-North Korea deal that takes the nuclear threat to Japan off the table, neither the United States nor North Korea would be as interested in addressing the North's shorter-range missile systems capable of hitting the island nation. Furthermore, while Japan's ability to squeeze North Korea was a major asset as long as the United States pursued a maximum pressure campaign, the change in tone means Japan would be the odd man out given its frosty relations with China and South Korea and its long-frozen relations with North Korea. Worse, Japan fears that a deal between Washington and Pyongyang might result in the long-term pullback of U.S. troops from South Korea. This may even mean a drawdown of troops in Okinawa as well, making Japan the front line against China in the U.S. defense architecture before Japan is able to renormalize its military. With those concerns in mind, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet with Trump on June 7.
With less than two weeks to go before the summit, a flurry of meetings will be held to work out the details. Ultimately, though, the summit's success will hinge on a willingness of both sides to reach a broad political agreement while trusting that the thorny technical issues would be worked out later.