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On sidelines of two-man summit, North Korea’s neighbors watch carefully

Why We Wrote This

On Tuesday, all eyes will be on Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. But the meeting was shaped by many countries, which are now anxious to see if their perspectives on a region in flux will get a hearing.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
A man watches a news broadcast about President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the Seoul Railway Station in South Korea June 11. Final preparations were under way in Singapore for Tuesday's historic summit between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim.

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When President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un first sit down for their much-awaited summit on Tuesday, they (and their interpreters) will reportedly be the only ones in the room. But the whole world, it feels like, will be watching – and nowhere more than in North Korea’s neighborhood. Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia, which shares an 11-mile border with North Korea, have done more than wait as Washington and Pyongyang negotiated this meeting. They’ve been key to shaping it: from South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose efforts to improve inter-Korean relations got the ball rolling, to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has met with Mr. Kim twice. But the flurry of diplomatic activity in the run-up to Tuesday’s meetings highlights widespread uncertainty in Northeast Asia over the region’s future, thanks to Mr. Trump’s go-it-alone rhetoric, an increasingly assertive China, and North Korea’s nuclear threat. What does each country have at stake, and will the hard-to-predict Trump and Kim consider their concerns?

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe flew to Washington last week, he delivered an urgent message to President Trump ahead of tomorrow’s unprecedented US-North Korea summit: Don’t forget about us.

For Mr. Abe, the visit was a last-ditch attempt to ensure that any deal Mr. Trump reaches with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un doesn't harm Japan's interests. But Trump’s off-the-cuff negotiating style — and his growing disregard for many of Washington’s closest allies — makes it difficult to predict what any such a deal might include.

Japan isn’t the only East Asian nation anxious about the one-on-one meeting between Trump and Mr. Kim in Singapore on Tuesday. China, South Korea, and Russia have all tried to influence the strong-headed leaders before they sit down together for the first time.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Kim in Pyongyang last month and invited him to Moscow. Chinese President Xi Jinping has met with him twice in China. And South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has met twice with Kim and three times with Trump, has reportedly lobbied for a trilateral meeting in Singapore to discuss a formal end to the Korean War.

“Everyone in the region wants the summit to go well,” says Wang Dong, an associate professor of international studies at Peking University in Beijing. “If the talks fail, we could quickly go back to the kind of escalation we saw last year.”

But the flurry of diplomatic activity in the run-up to Tuesday’s summit highlights the widespread uncertainty felt in Northeast Asia over the region’s future. Trump’s bellicose rhetoric and go-it-alone attitude have American allies on edge, to say nothing of China’s growing influence and the North Korean nuclear threat. Whatever happens when Kim and Trump meet on Tuesday could go a long way in determining the balance of power in the region for years to come. Here’s a look at what countries there have at stake.

Japan: still within range

Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy and his eagerness to make a deal with Kim are a worrisome combination for Japan. Among the country’s biggest fears is that Trump could accept a limited agreement that addresses North Korea’s nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, but, in exchange, reduces the American military presence in East Asia. Doing so would allow Trump to say that he had kept his promise to protect the US, but it would come at a cost to Japan, which is in range of North Korea’s short- and medium-range missiles and has long relied on the US as a bulwark against China.

Another key issue for Japan is the fate of at least a dozen Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.  Japan's foreign ministry regards the abductions as “a critical issue concerning the sovereignty of Japan,” and has said that any normalization of relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang can only happen after its resolved.

After discussing the abductions with Trump at the White House on Thursday, Abe struck a hopeful tone during a press conference. He said that Trump “fully understands” the need to bring home the abductees, adding that Trump “is one of the leaders who understands the issue the most.” For his part, Trump has pledged to raise the issue with Kim.

South Korea: no longer 'driving?'

It’s safe to say that Tuesday’s historic summit wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t for Mr. Moon. Since taking office in 2017, South Korea’s president has made negotiations with North Korea a focus of his administration, vowing to take the “driver’s seat” in improving the world’s relationship with Pyongyang.

He has strongly advocated for the meeting and remained diplomatic when Trump abruptly cancelled it in late May, seemingly without notifying Moon first – although the pair had met with in Washington two days before. While the summit was back on days later, the episode led many in Seoul to call into question Trump’s commitment.

For Moon and his supporters, the No. 1 goal for the summit is to reduce to threat of conflict on the Korean peninsula. Their hope is that Trump and Kim can agree to a plan that allows North Korea to denuclearize in return for normalized ties with the US. Humanitarian and economic steps could follow. Trump hasn’t ruled out taking this kind of incremental approach; he said on Thursday that he didn’t think it would be a “one-meeting deal.” But it’s unclear how patient he’s willing to be.

In addition to discussing denuclearization with Kim, Trump has also left open the possibility of declaring an end to the Korean War. The 1950-53 conflict ended with an armistice. Yet a formal peace treaty would need to involve not only the US, which fought on the South’s side during the war, but also China, which fought on the North’s. The most that could happen in Singapore is a declaration of intent, leaving the negotiating and signing of a treaty for later.

China: hoping for a trade thaw

A peace declaration is just one of several outcomes of the Trump-Kim summit that China would happily accept, especially if it were to lead to a reduction in the number of American troops in South Korea. Trump has reportedly sought options for bringing home some of the 28,500 soldiers stationed there, but the White House has denied reports of it planning to use troops as bargaining chips.  

China is also hoping that the summit leads to an easing of the international sanctions that have been imposed on North Korea. While Beijing has for the most part reluctantly enforced them, it has never fully supported the idea that sanctions alone would curtail Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Trump has said that he would stop using the phrase “maximum pressure” to describe the sanctions, even though he insisted that they would remain in place.

Should Trump agree to ease sanctions, Beijing is likely to be very willing to help North Korea rebuild its economy. China already accounts for 90 percent of the North’s trade, making it well positioned to benefit from any future reforms. Beijing is eager to help Pyongyang develop along the same lines as China's own state-controlled market economy, and, in doing so, help prove its validity as an alternative to American-style capitalism.

“North Korea has demonstrated a strong interest to pivot to economic development,” says Zhao Tong, a nuclear policy analyst at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “China will be more than happy to facilitate that strategic transition, but a precondition to doing that is a better North Korea-US relationship.”

Russia: a likely winner

The bottom line for Russia, which shares an 11-mile border with North Korea, is stability. A conflict on the Korean Peninsula could send thousands of refugees across the border and into one of the poorest regions of Russia. (The same goes for China, which could see millions of refugees cross into its territory if war broke out.)

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Trump for what he called a “courageous and mature” decision to meet with Kim. He has also said Moscow has “big hopes” for the success of the meeting and for its potential to defuse regional tensions.

Despite Mr. Putin’s optimistic words, some Russian foreign policy analysts warn that the summit is likely to end in failure. They cite, among other things, both leaders’ mercurial personalities. But Artyom Lukin, an associate professor of international relations at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, says that “whether the summit succeeds or fails, Moscow could gain advantages either way.”

If Kim and Trump reach a deal that enhances regional security, Russia could decide to move ahead with plans to build a gas pipeline and extend the Trans-Siberian Railway across the Korean Peninsula. If they fail to reach a deal, Professor Lukin says, the Kremlin could then decide to take advantage of what little leverage it has over North Korea.

“In particular, Russia might use its leverage with North Korea as a bargaining chip in dealing with the US,” Lukin says. “Putin is very skillful at using international crises to advance Russia’s national interests.”

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