It is significant that Kim and Trump met to “have an equal conversation.”
North Korea’s Kim Jong-un met with Donald Trump of the United States in Singapore. This was the first meeting of the heads of government of these two countries. The United States has been at war with North Korea since 1950. Three years into that war, which destroyed most of the infrastructure in North Korea, the two countries—and South Korea—agreed to a halt in the active fighting. But the war did not end. It remains intact. A massive military deployment by the United States at the edge of North Korea maintains the fear inside the Korean Peninsula of annihilation. This is what makes the summit between Kim and Trump so important. Threats of war are now at a low point.
North Korea’s Kim arrived in Singapore on an Air China flight. This is significant. It was China that guaranteed the safety and security of Kim. Heads of government of North Korea had previously only been to fraternal countries—whether China or the USSR. China’s role in this summit guaranteed that Kim would be treated with respect. The government of Singapore—which recognizes both North Korea and the United States—hosted Kim and brokered the outlines of the conversation. It is important to pay attention to the Chinese context for these discussions.
China has long urged North Korea to offer an olive branch to South Korea and to the United States. What China fears more than anything is a precipitous collapse of North Korea, whether through war with the United States and South Korea or through the impact of the cruel sanctions regime forced on North Korea by the United States. Such a collapse would bring the United States to the Chinese border. North Korea has provided a buffer between the thousands of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and China. The maintenance of North Korea is essential to China’s security concerns.
The United States might have the world’s largest military, but it is certainly not dictating the terms to North Korea in these negotiations. The situation here is not as it was with East Germany (the DDR) in the 1980s. Then, the USSR was near collapse and the leadership of the DDR was unable to put forward a coherent plan for the reunification of Germany that did not result in the erasure of the DDR. That reunification was truly a surrender. It meant that the new Germany joined NATO, and that the Western military alliance crept closer and closer to the Russian border.
The Chinese authorities know this history well. They are aware that they are far stronger than the USSR in the 1980s and that they will have an active role in the talks between North and South Korea as well as with the United States. Their absence from the table itself should not be misread to mean that the Chinese are not whispering into Kim’s ear.