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Apr 24: North Korea and American Summit & its impact on Pakistan by Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi

One of the contributions of social media is that the political landscape moves fast as a multitude of people participate in the debate. This has caused many politicians to take a U-turn on their policy and political position. One of the most fantastic u-turns has happened in the bilateral relations between North Korea and United States of America (USA). There has been a roller coaster ride in their bilateral relations from high wire threats of strikes on each other after assumption of office by President Trump to a consent of a summit which is planned for the end of May. Let’s look at the players and their strategic interest in the region.

I have always held the position that President Trump public posturing to pressure North Korea had a calculated political purpose. Americans expected a reaction from North Korea when they were challenged and Kim Jong-un did not disappoint them. The purpose of increasing tension on the Korean peninsula was to help Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to secure a majority mandate. It would have helped him amend the constitution to allow Japan to become an active military power rather than remain passive. This would have been a critical step in moving towards a Pacific Alliance Treaty Organization (PATO) with India, Australia, USA, and Japan as key players. The tensions did help PM Abe get majority mandate to become the longest-serving elected leader after Second World War but he could not muster enough support to get an amendment to the constitution. This was further undermined because USA walked away from a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement which was the economic component of the security arrangement to contain China.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula allowed America to place THAD missile system in South Korea. This angered Chinese that is the largest trading partner of South Korea. Chinese retaliated by imposing certain restrictions on major South Korean companies. This created pressure on them as American became increasingly protectionist and could not be relied upon as an alternate market.

Strategically American’s would prefer to keep tensions high with North Korea as that would justify creation of a security platform and maintain their nuclear umbrella in South East Asia. Chinese strategic interest requires that tensions between North Korea and the USA should come down. That in my view is the main reason for a change in the behavior of North Korea. Unilateral decision of South Korea to engage with North Koreans using Winter Olympics as pretext created a conducive environment for a Summit. There should be no doubt that Chinese played a behind the scene role in bringing the two Koreas together. Failure of Japanese to amend the constitution and uneasiness of Europeans was also instrumental in pushing Americans to respond favorably to the overtures of North Koreans.

The public posturing of North Koreans is very interesting and raises many questions. Even before sitting at the table North Korea has announced that they would stop their nuclear and missile tests. Why would they do that? What do they want in return for denuclearization? I have no doubt that Chinese are closely coordinating the actions of North Korea and do not want to leave anything to chance. Korean leader Kim Jong-un traveled to China for an audience with President Xi and it is expected that a reverse trip will happen soon before the summit. It is important that Chinese strategic interests are understood that they want to achieve from the summit.

China does not want a united Korea as it could change the balance of power substantially in the region with unforeseen consequences. China also does not want the continued presence of around 50,000 American forces stationed at the 59th parallel. They would also like THAD missile system to be removed from South Korea. The emergence of a Pacific Alliance Treaty Organization (PATO) would also be against their interest. China would prefer to push America as farther back from the region as possible. Trump and his volatile foreign policy team is a perfect opportunity for them to avail.

Keeping all this in mind what would Kim want from Americans in return for abandoning its nuclear and missile program. Kim would seek a peace treaty with South Korea which is still not in place since July 1953 when hostilities ceased in the Korean War. The peace treaty would make the presence of American troops redundant but to ensure the security of North Korea they may seek permission to get Chinese troops stationed at their side of the border. This will also create grounds for removal of THAD missile system which has made South Koreans highly uncomfortable as peace-loving people. To allay fears of Japan, Chinese may be asked to provide guarantees that security and trade interests of Japan will be protected. To take Indians into confidence PM Modi is traveling to China on an informal two-day visit this week. I have always held the position that Chinese and Indians never fought a major war in 5000 years of recorded history and it is not going to happen any time soon to serve American interests. So far, Indians have used Americans as a card to seek regional concessions from Chinese.

What does it mean for Pakistan? After taking care of Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions the attention of the world will turn towards Pakistan. We need to prepare for this eventuality and closely monitor the developments on Iran nuclear deal as well as the North Korean summit. Pakistan’s too much dependence on China for economic development is not in the interest of the country. CPEC is important for us but we have to find other investment and trade partners to keep Chinese share of the economy to a manageable level. Ideally, no country should have more than 15% share of our national economy.

Our internal instability and social divisions will undermine our foreign policy position. It is important that we work towards political stability, economic growth, reduce social divisions, and achieve fair justice system.

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