"Played Like a Fiddle"

Today in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, Kim Jong-Un met with South Korean president Moon Jae-in in the first meeting between leaders of the two states in over a decade, with Kim crossing into South Korean territory for the first time. A lot of people are talking about Donald Trump’s “diplomatic victory”, but it wasn’t just Trump that changed the game, and it’s not Trump or the US that will benefit most.

Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in hold hands as they cross the border into South Korean territory

Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in hold hands as they cross the border into South Korean territory

So let me tell you a story.

China and North Korea’s traditionally close (but problematically dependent) relationship was strained in 2017, and late last year China got on board with the UN’s toughest sanctions ever against North Korea. Since China is NK’s one lifeline and effectively the only thing keeping Kim’s dictatorship afloat, it was this shift that truly changed the playing field.

In the meantime, Trump had been ratcheting up rhetoric on a trade war with China that had simmered in the background through his first year in office.

Then, on March 9th, Trump said he would meet with Kim.

We shouldn’t be at all surprised that Kim was willing to meet Trump – NK has long wanted a meeting with a sitting US president because it legitimizes the regime. But while it was Trump’s unprecedented willingness to meet that set everything in motion, it’s what happened next that will determine the course of negotiations.

Ri Sol-ju and Kim Jung-sook lean across their husbands to clink glasses at the state banquet

Ri Sol-ju and Kim Jung-sook lean across their husbands to clink glasses at the state banquet

Most importantly: Kim’s visit to Beijing on March 25th, just three days after Trump launched a long-expected trade war with China. Given China’s history with NK, it would have been an enormous insult for Kim to meet with Trump before Xi, so this could simply be a sign of respect, but given that Kim had previously never left the Hermit Kingdom, it’s likely that there was more at stake.

Here’s my bet: Xi knew that the US and China were about to go toe to toe, and brought Kim in and told him: take the meeting, do what I say, and I’ll break the sanctions and ensure your survival.

Xi encouraged Kim to concede US-South Korean joint military drills and US troops on the peninsula, and to meet with South Korean president Moon Jae-in. In so doing, he has orchestrated what many have rightly called one of the biggest diplomatic breakthroughs of the past few decades. In return, goods and workers are once again flowing across the border between China and North Korea – the exact flow that China had stymied to bring Kim to the table in the first place.

By creating an international expectation of a deal, all eyes are on Trump’s summit with Kim. Last time I wrote about this, I was extremely skeptical that it would happen, given how few details we had heard. But given now-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Easter visit to Kim, chances of the meeting happening are significantly higher.

But here’s the catch: Kim will include concessions to China in the list of demands for “denuclearization”. When Trump walks in to that meeting, he won’t just be sitting down with Kim – he’ll be figuratively sitting down with Xi. Trump told Xi that there would be a quid pro quo on trade if Xi helped with NK, but given the tariffs that followed Xi signing on to the UN sanctions, Trump clearly lied. But once you entangle the two issues, they’re difficult to untangle.

Trump is going to get blindsided. With everyone in the world watching the Korean situation and hoping for a deal, it would look extremely bad for Trump if he’s the one to spoil peace on the Korean peninsula and forfeit an almost certain Nobel Peace Prize over selling some semi-conductors to China.

In the meantime, we still don’t know what the North Koreans mean by denuclearization, which was exactly the misalignment of understanding that killed the Six-Party talks in 2003, or what North Korea is demanding in return. So while the meeting between Kim and Moon is a huge step, we’re far from a comprehensive peace.

We’re going to certainly find out more next week when Trump’s economic team goes to Beijing – I’m waiting to see if Xi shows his hand on North Korea now, or waits until Trump is in the room. If it’s the former, I don’t think Trump goes to meet Kim, but if it’s the latter, I think it goes forward.

Trump said today that the US had previously been “played like a fiddle”, but that he would not be played. Wait till the end of the concert Donald. I’ll give him credit on this though – he’s right to hedge his bets by always saying “but anything can happen” and being willing to walk away. More to come.

Special thanks to Katie Clarence for her background on the history of the relationship between North Korea and China.