HANOI — The ultimately fruitless U.S.-North Korea summit in Vietnam that ended Thursday will have a mixed impact on East Asian countries of China, South Korea and Japan, each of which has different strategic interests at stake.
The two-day summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un failed to yield any written agreement, sparking concern that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula will not be realized in the near future.
Foreign affairs experts say China is not altogether displeased in the outcome given it is keen to continue playing a pivotal role in East Asia, while South Korea is disappointed as it will likely face difficulties in deepening economic cooperation with the North amid tight international sanctions on its neighbor.
Japan, meanwhile, remains threatened by North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles without being able to find an opening for breaking the deadlock in bilateral relations, they added.
In early 2018, Kim suddenly started pledging to attain “complete” denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and putting more emphasis on revitalizing the economy than on bolstering the armed forces.
Dogged by the sanctions that have dragged down its economy, North Korea has made diplomatic overtures to China, South Korea and the United States, while discontinuing missile and nuclear tests.
Since making his first foreign trip as leader to Beijing last March, Kim has held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping four times and thrice with South Korean President Moon Jae, in addition to his two summits with Trump.
Kim’s overtures have been accepted by the leaders, allowing Pyongyang to successfully mend its ties with all three countries.
Nevertheless, Trump rejected North Korea’s proposals as inadequate this time, saying it “wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety” without offering “enough” denuclearization measures in return.
Analysts say that China — North Korea’s major economic and political ally — is inwardly happy to hear that the Hanoi summit failed to achieve a breakthrough, as maintaining influence over its neighbor is in its security interests.
“China will be relieved that the United States and North Korea couldn’t come to an agreement without Chinese input for fears that Chinese core interests could be sidelined,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of politics at International Christian University in Tokyo.
China and the United States have been engaged in a trade war and divided over security issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea.
“As long as U.S.-North Korea talks are stalled, China would try to use North Korea as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from the United States,” a source familiar with Beijing’s thinking said.
Trump told a press conference following his summit with Kim, “China has been very helpful. President Xi is a great leader. He’s a highly respected leader all over the world, and especially in Asia. And he’s helped us.”
Many diplomats in Beijing expect Kim to visit China soon to meet with Xi. As this year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Pyongyang, speculation is also rife that Xi will visit North Korea as early as in April.
As for the two Koreas, their economic cooperation, including a jointly run industrial park at the North’s border city of Kaesong and tours by South Koreans to its Mt. Kumgang resort, has been suspended so far in consideration of the United States.
Trump’s commitment not to “give up all of the sanctions,” aimed at preventing North Korea from pursing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, will deprive the South of an opportunity to resume the joint economic activities, which also include a project to connect railways and roads across the inter-Korean border.
As the Trump-Kim summit did not solve key issues that lie between the United States and North Korea, inter-Korean ties “cannot but have limits,” said Kim Joon Hyung, a professor of international politics at Handong University in Pohang, South Korea.
Under the current circumstances, Kim’s possible visit to the South’s capital Seoul “will not come soon,” although the two Koreas are very eager to strengthen their relations further, a diplomatic source said.
Japan has a different set of worries. As denuclearization talks have failed to deliver a substantial outcome, North Korea will continue to have nuclear arsenal with ballistic missiles capable of reaching Japan.
Among countries in East Asia, Japan has lagged behind in improving ties with North Korea.
Their relations are stuck in a stalemate over the long-standing issue of past abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe having stated that tackling the matter is his “life’s work.”
Abe insists the abduction issue be resolved before bilateral relations can be normalized.
But Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said, “Japan risks being isolated from the four-way discussions and developments between the United States, North Korea, South Korea and China.”
“Prime Minister Abe’s primary focus on the abductee issue contributes to this risk to Japan,” he added.
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, said, “Abe prefers regime change not allowing Kim to engage in nuclear blackmail.”
Japan’s relations with South Korea have also been deteriorating over matters related to its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, while those with China have been improving.