WHILE it was Trump and Kim taking centre stage at Tuesday’s “summit of the century,” the outcomes were about much more than just the US and North Korea.
Each regional power, with their own unique vested interests, was watching with keen interest to see the potential repercussions of this highly unpredictable meeting.
The agreement itself was fairly vague and didn’t throw out many surprises to both governments and pundits alike. But Trump’s surprise decision to end military exercises, or “war games” as he called them – a term usually used by US enemies, like North Korea – did.
His intention to eventually withdraw troops from South Korea also signalled a leaning towards American retreat in the region.
This decision, along with the opening of dialogue with Pyongyang, will serve some better than others.
South Korea championed the outcome of the talks. While they were no doubt left scrambling to make sense of Trump’s “war games” announcement, the general consensus was one of happiness and relief.
President Moon Jae-in expressed his “heartfelt congratulations” for the summit’s success and heaped praise on both Kim and Trump for their “bold” diplomatic efforts.
This just in: South Korea’s Moon Jae-in statement on today’s summit pic.twitter.com/mPDElMjwyb
— Elise Hu (@elisewho) June 12, 2018
For a country that’s been living under the threat of military action from North Korea for decades, any form of constructive dialogue between the Pyongyang and Washington is better than none at all, or worse, the pair hurling insults at each other as was in vogue just a mere months ago.
While they were reportedly not aware of Trump’s decision to cancel military exercises, this is something that’s been floated in the past between Seoul and the White House in a bid to get North Korea to the table. And South Korea’s eagerness to see the peninsula step back from the brink will likely trump any concern over military exercises.
This could prove to be short-lived, however, if talks breakdown and a fully-armed and uncooperative North Korea remains on a poorly defended Korean border.
China will be fairly happy with the outcome of the summit. While President Xi Jinping has already expressed his disappointment that sanctions were not loosened, the idea of reduced US military presence on the peninsula will be a welcome prospect.
Trump’s idea to scrap military exercises is, in fact, straight out of the China playbook. Beijing has long suggested this as a strategy in return for a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme. For China, very much a two birds one stone scenario.
If China’s goal is to reduce American influence in the region – and it is – then Trump’s mention of possible withdrawal of US troops from the peninsula will be music to their ears.
Japan is the only regional power to come out and criticise Trump’s unilateral cancelling of military exercises.
“Joint drills with US forces in South Korea play an important role in East Asia’s security,” Itsunori Onodera, Japan’s defense minister, told reporters on Wednesday.
“We would like to seek an understanding of this between Japan, the US and South Korea.”
This seeming retreat on the part of the US, paired with the complete lack of details and timeline for nuclear disarmament of North Korea, is a bad combination for Japan.
If talks breakdown, as they have in the past, the region could be left with a nuclear armed North Korea and no – or at least weakened – US support, pushing Japan into a corner in which bulking up their own defences may seem like the only option.