While the awaits outcome of the landmark summit between US President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un dozens of pundits and political observers have attempted to draw a parallel between the upcoming meeting and the major diplomatic breakthrough that was made in 1972 when then-President Richard M. Nixon and Chinese Premiere Mao Zedong ended decades of hostilities by forging a new strategic partnership between the once-arch enemies that continues to this day.
While it is a convenient parlour game to draw comparisons between the two meetings, the similarities between the two American administrations and their counterparts in Beijing in the early 1970s and today’s Pyongyang generally end there.
Trump’s insatiable desire to meet with Kim after months of playground banter between the two is not based on forging a vitally strategic or economic partnership with a legitimate rival on the world stage – Kim’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is both a political and economic basket case compared to Mao’s China, even after the disasters of the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward.
Kim is not in a position to be driven into the arms of Trump in the same way Mao understood that forging a relationship with the United States would put it on equal footing with the West as a nuclear power, but also cement its place as a global player alongside its other main rival, the Soviet Union, which had become an even greater irritant to the Chinese Communist party than its erstwhile Capitalist enemies in Washington and London.
North Korea, by contrast, has little contact with the outside world and has little regional influence beyond the 38th Parallel that divides it from South Korea. Kim presides over a country that is often close to economic collapse relies almost exclusively on China for basic amenities that keep the country alive. And utterly Unlike China in 1972, which was locked in such a deadly rivalry for big power status in the Communist world with the Soviet Union that their mutual animosity had developed into a shooting war between the two giants by the late 1960s – North Korea exists largely as a client state of Beijing.
Trump’s attempt to exact maximum pressure on North Korea has yielded results as Washington and China haggle over trade issues and export tariffs. Sensing a possible chance to gain Trump’s confidence by going along with Washington’s call to further isolate Kim by halting shipments of North Korean coal, it is likely that Chinese President Xi Jinping is hoping that Trump will return the favour by not slapping new tariffs on key Chinese exports.
The knock-on effect has been to severely damage North Korea’s hard currency reserves, which has likely prompted Kim to conclude that it is in his best interests to sit down with Trump and see what sort of economic concessions Washington is ready to agree to in exchange for North Korea agreeing to halt its nuclear weapons programme.
What separates Kim from China’s negotiators with the Nixon administration is his own self-confidence. Buoyed by glowing coverage after his meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his vow that the 70-year-old Korean War had officially come to an end, Kim has little incentive to give-in on key issues regarding human rights and the opening of the Hermit Kingdom’s economy to outside investment as he has manoeuvred himself into a position where the breaking point for his regime has now faded into the background amidst the public relations goodwill tour that he launched in the lead-up to the 2018 Winter Olympics held in South Korea.
Even after the Trump-Kim summit, the DPRK will remain an isolated and authoritarian state that is subject to the whims of its third generation of Kim family leadership. What it may gain, however, is the recognition that it has long craved from its main enemy – the recognition that it is a nuclear-armed state that has no intention of changing or going away any time soon. Nor does it give Trump the foreign policy victory that his administration so craves after nearly 18 months of less-than-optimal results on the world stage.
That is a prospect that does little towards guaranteeing a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula or comes close to replicating the truly historic breakthrough that was made when the United States officially recognised the People’s Republic of China nearly half a century ago.