There are many essential points of the US-North Korean talks which have been treated, albeit briefly, in the Singapore summit between Kim Jong-un and US President Donald J. Trump.
It was certainly not a mere photo-opportunity but, inevitably, it was not an already fully-fledged agreement between the two parties.
With specific reference to denuclearization, nothing new under the sun, but something very important and new from the political viewpoint, also compared to the opposing rhetoric of the USA and North Korea. Symbols matter in foreign policy and, as far as we know, Trump and Kim Jong-un liked each other – rational, brutal and frank as they both are.
Nevertheless, North Korea's decision-makers have long considered their realistic plans for their country's military nuclear exit.
In fact, five years ago, Kim decided to implement his byungjin policy line, i.e., the parallel development of North Korea’s nuclear military system and of the civilian economy since he had above all verified that, at the time, it was the only way to make the USA sit at the negotiating table.
For Kim Jong-un, the United States was the key to success: he knew the costs and relevance of a long-standing and effective relationship with China and the Russian Federation, but he wanted the Third Factor to make North Korea partially autonomous.
Without upsetting old balances, but maneuvering them with the traditional rationality of its ruling class.
At the time, Kim’s other considerations referred to the strong, ongoing and evident US military pressure and to the particular weakness of North Korea, which was in a phase of political and strategic transition between two elites.
The beginning of the naïve and dangerous US project was Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011, which led to a clear South Korean and US military pressure for a naïve and unlikely regime change that obviously did not take place.
Later, in June 2013, the National Military Commission, led by Kim Jong-un, stated it was ready to start a stable denuclearization process.
At that time, a renewal of the Six-Party Talks would have been possible also for North Korea, but it wanted above all a bilateral negotiation with the United States.
According to the "policy line" decided by Kim Jong-un at the time, the USA, for its part, had not to set initial and preliminary conditions.
Nevertheless, the USA certainly had every interest in being the new power broker of the agreement with North Korea, the only breaking point of a strategic continuity which would have been very convenient for the United States.
It should be recalled that in February 2012, there was the failure of Barack Obama's proposal for the cessation of nuclear and missile tests and the subsequent sending of a North Korean satellite into space.
Coincidentally, in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping established a special confidential diplomatic channel with North Korea, but the tension with the USA mounted and certainly not for the Chinese move.
But what is, ultimately, the give and take for denuclearization, according to Kim Jong-un’s policy lines which have actually been implemented by the curt, but significant Singapore summit agreement?
First and foremost, the cessation of the US hostile policy, that is the political, economic and military tension against North Korea. Furthermore, North Korea wants the full and official recognition of sovereignty on its territory, as well as the replacement of the 1953 ceasefire with a peace treaty, and finally the end of all economic sanctions against it.
All these aspects are already included – also between the lines – in the Singapore Agreement.
Hence, if the traditional tension between North and South Korea ends, the entire region of the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf, starting from the Mediterranean up to the US military bases in the Pacific, becomes – for the USA – a strategic continuum capable of stabilizing the central Asian terrestrial axis.
This could weaken China on its maritime border in the South and would also reassure the Russian Federation in a small sea, which by the way is essential for Russia from a military viewpoint.
At an economic level, the most analytical models to assess the possible integration of both Koreas currently point to a necessary increase of at least 50 of North Korea’s GDP and also of the average income of its citizens – given the increase in the total productivity of economic factors and the accounting of North Korea’s general balance considering eight primary factors.
Within a North-South Korean integration project, there would be above all an increase in medium-level light and manufacturing productions, especially in the North, while there would be global economic room also for mining products in North Korea alone.
The traditional cost model studied for unification regards the capital investment to reach a 60% per capita GDP in North Korea compared to South Korea’s – a limit that is thought to be capable of avoiding mass domestic migration.
Currently, the most careful and recent calculations make us estimate the total cost of reunification at approximately $1,800 billion.
A 23% share would come from North Korea’s full integration into the world market, starting from the current productive specializations of this country. A further 14.5% share of the total reunification cost would come from the share of international aid to which North Korea would ultimately have access. Finally, an additional 12.3% share would come from the integration between North Korean companies and similar South Korean ones. The rest would come from Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), in which also Russian and Chinese companies should participate.
However, a fully affordable and feasible additional "remainder" could come from North Korea’s new commercial treaties with the EU, Japan and obviously China and the Russian Federation. This can be done soon and well.
Trade between North Korea and Russia has long been worth slightly less than $100 million a year. Currently, it is over $78 million but, in this new political phase, certainly strategic, scientific and military exchanges are still essential for both Russia and North Korea.
Today, for example, there is the railway crossing between the Russian Federation, in Vladivostok, and the North Korean port of Razon.
Furthermore, part of the Internet networks reaching the North Korean territory comes from the "nodes" of the Russian network on its borders.
Moreover, Russia still supports – on its own – the link between North Korea and the World Bank and it also wants to innovate the North Korean railway system – which is a great business – in addition to pressing for the creation of a pipeline that will make Russian energy products reach both the North and the South of the Korean peninsula.
Finally, negotiations are underway for the exchange of Russian electricity with North Korean minerals.
This is the strategic and economic core of the issue: if in the future, the agreement between Donald J. Trump and Kim Jong-un does not concern an economic and strategic arrangement also with the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China, most of the agreement signed in Singapore will remain dead letter.
Not to mention the at least 40,000 North Korean workers still operating in the Russian Federation. There is also the Russian oil, which currently comes to North Korea through the traders present on the markets, right in Singapore.
Hence, the failure of the very recent Singapore Agreement is a severe danger to be averted both for the United States and for the silent and weak EU, as well as for Russia and China, and obviously also for North Korea itself.
If the USA wants to focus on its new strategic balances between Africa, Latin America, and Western Asia, it must loosen – at least partially – the grip on an old and now obsolete Cold War scenario, i.e., the Korean confrontation in which Gen. MacArthur threatened the use of nuclear weapons against the People's Republic of China, which supported North Korea’s expansion to the South.
As Mao Zedong would have said, many fires lit to confuse the US adversary and tie it to a defensive logic without future – as was also the case with the Vietnam War, a war of attrition that became for the USA the seal closing the whole Far East to the US interests.
Mao, an excellent military strategist, was right.
Today, however, it is time to well-evaluate all the possible options, both for the United States and for the weak European Union.
The latter could do much, if only it knew how to do it.
Moreover, we must always think about China.
China still accounts for 90% of North Korea’s foreign trade, but President Xi Jinping's policy regarding the UN sanctions against North Korea has come to the point of no return, as demonstrated by the unfriendly note issued by the North Korean news agency in May 2017.
What does China want from North Korea and will continue to want after the Singapore Agreement?
This is above all a two-party game with Russia. Hence, if China accepts sanctions on North Korea, it wants Russia to support North Korea financially.
Conversely, if North Korea becomes one of China’s efficient client States, at reduced costs, everything will be fine for President Xi Jinping.
Furthermore, it will be even better if North Korea becomes a quiet, but credible border for South Korea and its US forces stationed on the territory.
This will also be a decisive issue into which the Singapore negotiation will penetrate.
Another factor in the Chinese strategic considerations is the increasing cost for external attackers in threatening the North Korean soil.
China does not want a North Korea devoid of strategic threats but wants them to be considered in the US equation.
The aim is to avoid the military overload of South Korea, which is also a key economic partner for China.
Currently, the "de-escalation" of North Korea's nuclear potential is more a result of Chinese policies than of Western pressures.
Hence, China does not want North Korea’s warlike and aggressive positions and, not surprisingly, in mid-November 2017, it sent Sung Tao from the CPC Department for International Relations to curb Kim Jong-un’s multilateral tension with the USA and the UN Security Council and hence adhere to the Chinese policy line for the very survival of the North Korean regime.
Just not to forget the essential strategic issue, the Communist Party of China has no interest in putting an end to North Korea's nuclear position.
As stated in a CPC confidential document drafted in 2017, China has instead the primary strategic interest of using North Korea’s nuclear potential to prevent "chaos and war" throughout the peninsula and anyway support North Korea’s denuclearization, thus finally placing the whole nuclear system of the region under the IAEA’s protection.
China needs an inexpensive and even less troublesome shield to protect itself from US attacks by the entire Korean peninsula.
This could also be the US policy line in further future negotiations with Kim Jong-un.
Hence, China does not want North Korea’s military destabilization – God forbid – but it does not even want the nuclear arsenal to be quickly destroyed or to end up in the hands of States alien to China’ interests in the region.
Will this be the case for the USA in the future, after the Singapore summit?
Kim Jong-un, who is an excellent strategic analyst, knows all too well that he can use the US card, but only until it is not played against China.
Hence, the optimal situation for China would be to keep a share – to be negotiated – of nuclear weapons in North Korea until the situation – even in the South and for the new deployment of the US Armed Forces – is ripe for a new multilateral negotiation on the North Korean issue.
The North Korean leaders, however, see the denuclearization of their country (and of South Korea, too) in a three-phase mechanism: firstly, the freezing of their nuclear potential; secondly, the disabling of critical infrastructure, and finally the dismantling of their weapons already assembled.
From this viewpoint, in all the three phases North Korea wants the USA to reaffirm its decision – already taken and signed in Singapore – to "cease hostile policies."
As can be inferred from the official text of the Singapore Agreement, in a first phase there would be North Korea’s freezing of all nuclear activities.
Again along the policy line already spelled out in Singapore, there would be a further agreement on mutual economic and political relations.
Furthermore, there is also the request to stop the US military and nuclear activities throughout the Korean peninsula.
After the Singapore Agreement, however, we will probably witness an ever more reduced US presence in South Korea and North Korea’s reduced conventional pressure on pro-American South Korea.
However, there is nothing preventing the USA from shifting its nuclear weapons – with all the necessary checks – from South Korea to positions not posing a serious strategic threat to North Korea.
Kim Jong-un, however, does not want a "Libya-style model," i.e., the unsuccessful model relying on the following principle: "Firstly, put an end to nuclear weapons and then we can talk about it."
The North Korean leader is well-aware of how the USA behaved vis-à-vis Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, and Iraq. Indeed, he is not entirely wrong.
Hence, North Korea wants to check, step by step, all the costs, and benefits of the new and future treaty.
And it will make no concessions.
Nevertheless, everything hinges around an essential strategic process. Never leave the Americans alone – and this is a problem of the inept and vacuous EU – but also never leave the North Koreans alone.