How should the US deal with North Korea

Supremacy in Asia : Will the US join forces with North Korea against China?

A long handshake, a short jump back over the boundary stone to the north, a tree planted together: The summit meeting of Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae on Friday showed how much one can do the grand gesture in Korea, in both North and South strong image and loves the solemn word. The summit management crowned the day with the declaration of Panmunjom, named after the place on the inner-Korean border where Kim and Moon met. That the text was basically a variation on the 2007 summit declaration was overlooked in the day's euphoria.

However, it was not surprising that there was no really binding commitment with concrete instructions. The preparation time was short. Kim and Moon first had to find a connection to each other. Most of all, the meeting was just one step on the way to the summit between Kim and US President Trump, scheduled for late May or early June.

Critics now object that all previous summit declarations were already wasted before the ink on the signatures was dry. That may be true. This time, however, it could be different. With a bilateral meeting between the US President and the North Korean ruler, historically unprecedented, a point of no return could be reached for Pyongyang. The price for a relapse into old behavior would be high, and military strikes could not be ruled out. Both sides should therefore understand what they can expect from each other.

Perfected in the Cold War

The main goal of the leadership in Pyongyang is to maintain state independence. A peace treaty that occupies the imagination these days is only subordinate to it. North Korea must consider how it can hold on to this goal should it actually, if only gradually, dismantle its nuclear and missile arsenal. With its offer of talks to the USA in March, the week of the opening of the Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the country could have reactivated a political practice that it had pursued for decades: the rocking policy, perfected during the Cold War, when the competition did between Moscow and Beijing knew how to use it to his advantage. It cannot be ruled out that the USA will now take the place of the former Soviet Union.

Of course, Kim knows about the competition between the USA and China for supremacy in Asia. He is in the process of making his country an actor in this conflict. Talk of the brother states of China and North Korea has long been hollow. One mistrusts one another deeply. China regards North Korea as a military buffer zone and a compliant object of raw material exploitation. The economic dependence on Beijing is enormous. So Kim is likely to have a vital interest in alternative allies.

The US must now consider how to deal with a more cooperative North Korea. Under Obama, the motto of Pyongyang was strategic patience. Trump's appearance in the first year of his tenure could be described as tactical impatience. Even if he may have started the Korean conflict in motion, a strategy is needed again, and not one of just waiting, as was the case under Obama.

So what if the US now tries to integrate North Korea into an interest group against China? Of course, the internal situation in the country must then also be discussed very precisely. In view of the many friendly pictures these days, that was rather neglected. Pyongyang is just as unlikely to conform to Western values ​​as Beijing. In other cases, geopolitics has been pursued purely for power-strategic reasons, also in the hope of changing the partner.

A deal with Trump - and Beijing would be nervous

But you shouldn't be mistaken in North Korea. A deal with Trump - entry into an exit from the weapons program against easing of sanctions, for example - should make Beijing nervous. And induce a change in behavior towards Pyongyang. There, on the other hand, they know that China does not look at the domestic political reality of its partners quite as closely as the West. It is quite possible that Kim will rock back to Beijing in a year or two, where he will then receive the security guarantees that the USA cannot easily give him after a possible partial disarmament.

It remains exciting in the Far East.

Dr. Lars-André Richter heads the Korea office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, based in Seoul. He has visited North Korea around a dozen times.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page