Chapter 9 Theory in Practice case studies

Diplomacy and Foreign Policy


Summit diplomacy and Kim Jong-un

Optimism is characteristic of ‘summit diplomacy’, which has a long and chequered history. It was already an established way of doing business when the meeting between Publius Cornelius Scipio and Hannibal Barca the day before the momentous Battle of Zama failed to avert disaster for Carthage in 202BC. More recent was the infamous Munich Conference, after which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced “peace for our time”. World War Two broke out the following year.

More productive meetings occurred between the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev and United States President Ronald Reagan, when a good deal of tension was released from the ‘Second Cold War’ in the 1980s. Gorbachev also met with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who found him to be someone “we can do business with.” (Blanton 2013) These conversations do seem to have sowed doubts with Gorbachev about Soviet policy in Eastern Europe. Ultimately, his loosening of Soviet ties there led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The possibility of achieving Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Denuclearisation (CVID) on the Korean peninsula is attractive but might seem overly optimistic. Certainly, most classical realists would be sceptical, pointing out that the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) has no incentive to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Yet, this is the US’s official goal when it comes to diplomacy with the north, and others around Korea, and it is not entirely fanciful. Those in favour of talks argue that the easing of sanctions is the prize which might induce Kim to give up his nuclear weapons. Ring and Hwang, for example, point to South Korea, which has, for many decades, played a game between the great powers to good effect. Having received ironclad security guarantees from the US, the South has been able to engage economically with China (2020). They argue that “denuclearization becomes a viable policy option under specific conditions: security assurances from China and strong economic engagement with the US and South Korea.”

In other words, a mirror-image of this arrangement might allow the DPRK to give up its expensive missile and weapons programs under a security guarantee from China and economic engagement with the US and the developed world more generally.

Kim’s summitry came to a peak during the presidency of Donald Trump, when he arranged a flurry of meetings, with the South’s Moon Jae-in and with General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping, three times each, and with United States President Donald Trump once in 2018 and again the following year. “We fell in love,” he declared.

These summits produced a number of undertakings, including Kim repeatedly pledging to ‘denuclearize’ the peninsula in return for lifted sanctions and normalization of the DPRK’s status.

What did Kim’s several summit meetings in 2018 achieve? There has been no slow-down in the DPRK’s missile and nuclear programs, but, “North Korea’s summit diplomacy has revealed its desire to appear as a normal state” (Shin and Moon 2019), which might prompt us to ask what this ‘normal’ means.

President Joe Biden is a veteran diplomat, which elicits optimism for his program of “Summits for Democracy”. Shifrinson and Wertheim are wisely cautious. The plans, “so far do not reflect a substantial effort either to expand U.S. alliances with democracies or to restrict U.S. alliances to liberal states” (2021).

Discussion questions

  1. Was Donald Trump’s ‘love’ for Kim Jong-un naïve and unrequited?
  2. What conditions are necessary for summit diplomacy to be effective?
  3. In an age of Zoom meetings, will summits become more or less frequent?

Blanton, S. S. a. T. (2013). The Thatcher-Gorbachev Conversations. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 422.

Ring, J. and W. Hwang (2020). “Military and Economic Power Networks, Hedging, and Cooperation on the Korean Peninsula.” Asian Survey 60(6): 1090-1115.

Shin, G.-W. and R. J. Moon (2019). “North Korea in 2018.” Asian Survey 59(1): 35-43.

Wertheim, J. S. a. S. (2021). “Biden the Realist: The President’s Foreign Policy Doctrine Has Been Hiding in Plain Sight.” Foreign Affairs.

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