China has changed the balance of negotiations, creating the conditions for adding human rights to the summit’s agenda

“The Singapore summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump will happen.” To be honest, no one has yet officially confirmed this. However, it is increasingly probable that after the verbal anti-American attack launched by Pyongyang in the national press last week, and Washington’s immediate reply, with a letter stating that it would be inappropriate to organize such a sensitive summit at a time when North Korea was showing “tremendous anger and open hostility” toward it, everything seems to be back on track and the two countries have started communicating again in a more pragmatic manner.

Not Everything As It Was Before

It is interesting to note how this sudden flare-up was enough to radically upset the balance in the region. Despite the fact that communication channels have opened up again between North Korea and the United States, nothing is as it was before.

China No Longer Left Out

Trump had his reasons when he posited that the North Korean about-face could be tied in some way to promises made by Beijing. Moreover, the regime’s press began to rail against Washington shortly after the moment Kim returned from his second trip to China. It is impossible not to imagine that there is a link between the two. This means one thing: China and North Korea have bonded once more and Beijing can no longer be relegated to the role of observer in this crisis.

Beijing-Washington Show of Strength

If this is true, the Korean crisis will transform into yet another show of strength between Beijing and Washington. There is hope that this most dangerous of challenges will end without a victor, but instead with a compromise that both parties will agree to support.

For the time being, it would seem that things are going precisely in this direction, given that when Trump decided to make noise about canceling the meeting ⎯ without actually shutting down all possibility of a meeting, confirming that Trump can’t be as stupid and impulsive as so many depict him to be ⎯ Kim Jong Un retreated, perhaps also due to a nudge from Xi Jinping. Suddenly, all anti-American rhetoric disappeared from the national press, Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae In once again, and Pyongyang’s number two, Kim Yong Chol, flew to Washington for what has been called “substantial meetings” with Mike Pompeo. Meetings that, according to both parties, are going in the right direction.

Behind the Scenes of the New Detente

Nevertheless, as South Korea affirms, nothing is as it was before. It is clear to everyone that there is an enormous difference in points of view between Washington and Pyongyang over the meaning of the word denuclearization, and that lies at the crux of the meetings. The possibility of skipping over it was tied precisely to the inability of finding a compromise that could reconcile the needs of both.

A Long and Difficult Negotiation

The South Koreans, who continue to play the mediator role in this match, are beginning to realize that, despite the rapprochement with China, the meeting with Trump is more important than ever for Kim Jong Un. This is not so much because it’s the president of the United States, but rather because Kim understands that his survival now depends on his ability to “respect promises made.” He put himself on the line for peace on the peninsula and for economic development, and no matter how much he is able to transform every personally unpleasant fact through the propaganda machine, not to achieve anything would be a disaster for Kim.

Knots to Untangle

Both South Korea and China have already affirmed that their dialogue with North Korea will continue, even if the summit with Trump is completely missed. This is something that indirectly puts pressure on the U.S.: If it kicks up too much fuss, it risks finding itself firmly excluded from the bargaining talks ⎯ which is exactly what happened to China in January.

According to Seoul, in order to avoid problems, it is necessary to prioritize the peace treaty, which South Korea believes should be set in motion by the end of 2018, involving both China and the United States. That would bring Xi and Trump back to the same table ⎯ a scenario, it is important to emphasize, which would represent an enormous success for the former, while putting the latter in the shade.

Denuclearization and Human Rights

Once initiated, the peace negotiations could be dedicated to denuclearization and human rights — possibly avoiding the use of both these terms. Thus, after having sorted out the peace treaties and economic aid from denuclearization, a dialogue could be sought to achieve truly acceptable guarantees in the military arena. As for human rights, which have previously never been discussed in order to avoid antagonizing Kim, it is necessary to confront them, promoting “initiatives aimed at improving the population’s living conditions.”

Let us be perfectly clear: Kim has his arguments, but he cannot always win. Giving priority to a peace treaty and economic aid could create the conditions for a simultaneous discussion of denuclearization and human rights. Kim is very attached to his nuclear weapons, and thus, perhaps, by giving in to him a little on a topic he will never let go of, it might be possible to achieve more on the human rights front.

Maybe it would be worth trying.