Commentary: Many helping hands to the North Korea headache begin work this weekend – in Singapore

Commentary: Many helping hands to the North Korea headache begin work this weekend – in Singapore

A multilateral approach to the North Korea issue may see a revival in Singapore, on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, says one observer.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks at the 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore
The US's commitment to Asia's continued security and prosperity is based on strategic interests and shared values, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Edgar Su)

SEOUL: The planned Jun 12 summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is shaping up to be a bigger affair than just a meeting between two countries seeking an answer to the old, vexing question of how to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

This week, South Korea confirmed that President Moon Jae-in is considering a trip to Singapore to turn the summit into a three-way meeting. There are also rumours that Chinese President Xi Jinping could appear.

While this may sound like too many cooks in a hot, stuffy kitchen, the fact is that the main item on the summit agenda is a big, complicated issue that requires a multifaceted approach and the involvement of many actors.

For years, that was how the relevant countries approached the North Korea question – collectively instead of individually. Through a framework dubbed the Six Party Talks, the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia held six rounds of meetings from 2003-2007.

Having petered out with no major results – with North Korea having a much more advanced nuclear arsenal now than before the meetings started – the talks are mostly remembered as a failure and a testament to Pyongyang's determination to become a nuclear power.

A REVIVAL OF MULTILATERALISM IN SINGAPORE THIS WEEKEND

This kind of multilateral approach to the North Korea issue may see a revival in Singapore, and in the time leading up to the summit. 

Another factor making Singapore a hotbed for policymakers is this weekend's Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual forum that brings together defense officials from around the region. The title of the session on North Korea, decided months ago, hones in on the need to "deescalate crisis" in North Korea.

The diplomatic movements of recent months have meant that, at the current moment, goals have become far more ambitious than ratcheting down crisis. 

Security at SLD
A Singapore policeman from the Gurkhas contingent stands guard outside the hotel at the Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) during the Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore. (Photo: AFP/ Roslan Rahman) 

South Korea's defence minister will be in attendance and will be able to update contemporaries from elsewhere in Asia on how Seoul is evolving in its defence posture.

The changed tenor of the Shangri-La summit is a sign of how, at the very least, having gotten out of crisis mode is a positive step.

INVOLVE MOON JAE-IN AND XI JINPING

But the more consequential questions will be addressed at the summit and there is still a ways to go. First, it makes sense for Moon to take part in the summit.

Slightly more than a year into his presidency, Moon has shown himself to be uncommonly adept at walking the diplomatic tightrope that presents every South Korean leader with their most daunting foreign policy challenge: How to work towards peace with North Korea while also maintaining strong, productive ties with the United States, Seoul's main ally.

As president, Moon has skillfully developed relationships with both Trump and Kim, meeting with both men more than once each. 

At least from the outside, Moon seems to have convinced both the US and North Korea that he has good intentions and is earnestly seeking a peaceful solution to the befuddling issue of denuclearisation and formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War.

If Moon is on the ground in Singapore, he could act as a bridge between Trump and Kim, and if talks hit a snag, could remind his counterparts of the importance of the gathering and the need to work toward a meaningful result.

Moon displayed this propensity for putting out fires when, after Trump abruptly called off the summit, he held an unannounced second summit with Kim to demonstrate his commitment to dialogue. 

Hopes for the US-North Korea summit have being reignited after a flurry of weekend diplomacy,
Hopes for the US-North Korea summit have being reignited after a flurry of weekend diplomacy, including a surprise meeting between Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. (Photo: AFP)

It is likely that Moon's calm influence had something to do with North Korea's uncharacteristically accommodative response to Trump's cancellation.

Also, due to China's important role in Korean Peninsula affairs, Xi's presence, or some form of off-stage involvement by Beijing, would be a boon to the proceedings.

This year, Kim has traveled twice to China for meetings with Xi in what were his first international trips since taking power in early 2012, strong signs that the two countries are mending ties after years of frosty relations caused mostly by China's frustration with the North's continued provocations and dogged pursuit of nuclear armament.

That Xi is on board with efforts to get North Korea to denuclearise means he can act in concert with Trump and Moon. That China is still the North's closest ally means Xi has leverage in dealing with Kim that neither Trump nor Moon can match.

That then leaves Japan and Russia.

JAPAN AND RUSSIA AWAITING

Japan is a major US ally and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to coordinate closely with Trump before the summit, possibly on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit in Canada in early June.

Seeing as Japan is located within range of much of North Korea's military arsenal, Tokyo has long been especially eager to see North Korea take a turn toward peace and away from weapons development.

 

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe (left) and President Donald Trump
The White House said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and President Donald Trump will meet ahead of a much anticipated summit with North Korea's Kim Jong Un. (AFP/JOE RAEDLE)

Even Russia is in on the diplomatic flurry. This week Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov travelled to North Korea for talks that follow a trip to Moscow by North Korea's top diplomat.

How Russia fits into the bigger picture is a tricky question, as Vladimir Putin is, at a time when his country's foreign policy priorities are closer to home, unlikely to invest much effort in a far-away matter in which Russia would be a minor player.

But Russia enjoys growing relations with South Korea, and at least would not want to be seen as hindering efforts toward peace.

STARS ALIGNING

Less than two weeks before the summit, the stars are aligning in a way not seen since the Six Party Talks were last held more than a decade ago. The six countries still have their differences, but may be able to cooperate on this particular matter.

But, as with so much when it comes to North Korea, the ultimate success of their efforts will be determined by North Korea's willingness, or lack thereof, to denuclearize. Pyongyang still holds the trump card, and multilateral cooperation isn't necessarily enough to convince Kim of anything.

We could be witnessing the early stages of a new era of cooperation, or just the latest in a long series of disappointments.

Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Expose.

Source: CNA/sl

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