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The Regional Impact Of The North Korea Summit's Collapse


You talk with foreign policy experts in the U.S., and on the whole, they agree. President Trump was right to walk away from what North Korea was offering during the summit in Vietnam, that no deal is better than a bad one. But what does that mean for the rest of East Asia, especially China? This is some of what President Trump said in a news conference before he left the summit.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think China's been a big help, bigger than most people know. On the border is - you know, 93 percent of the goods coming into North Korea come through China. So there's a great power there. At the same time, I believe - I happen to believe that North Korea's calling its own shots and not taking orders from anybody. He's a very strong guy. And they're able to do things that are pretty amazing. But 93 percent still come in from China.

MARTIN: China is far and away North Korea's largest trading partner. To talk more about what the summit's implications are for North Korea's regional neighbors, we are joined in the studio by Abraham Denmark. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia under President Obama and is now at the Wilson Center.

Thanks so much for coming in.

ABRAHAM DENMARK: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: We heard President Trump say North Korea is calling its own shots. Is it?

DENMARK: Yes, it is. It's - North Korea has long been very focused on making sure it has its own autonomy. And during the Cold War, it was very careful to balance between China and the Soviet Union and, since the end of the Cold War, has been trying to balance between China and the United States. It's a small country. It's a very poor country. So they are reliant on the outside world for resources, for trade. But they also are very careful to not allow themselves to be dominated by any outside power.

MARTIN: And that includes China.

DENMARK: Absolutely includes China.

MARTIN: So let's look at China's perspective on the North Korean nuclear problem. I mean, how do they view it?

DENMARK: So China is not supportive of North Korea being a nuclear power. They would prefer to see North Korea denuclearized. But that has not been their top priority. When talking with senior Chinese officials, including up to Chinese President Xi Jinping, they're very consistent, saying no war, no nuclear weapons - in that order - meaning that China's first priority, even before denuclearization, is to maintain stability on the Korean peninsula. And that means preventing - opposing North Korea from doing anything that could spark a conflict, opposing the United States from doing anything that could spark a conflict and opposing sanctions that could be so difficult against the North Koreans to precipitate the collapse of the regime.

MARTIN: So how do they view the breakdown of these talks? In some way, do they benefit when the United States suffers a blow like this because then they preserve their more salient role as the interlocutor of all these parties?

DENMARK: Well, China has a bit of a bifurcated approach to this is that they see the nuclear issue, especially, as an issue between North Korea and the United States and in the past, have said - told the United States, you need to talk to the North Koreans. This is your issue. But at the same time, they want to be part of the conversation. They will not be excluded from the conversation. And Chinese President Xi Jinping has been meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un several times over the past year to emphasize that China has a key role to play.

Now, they're - I think the Chinese are very pleased to see that we are in a diplomatic phase of our engagement with North Korea. They would like to see us continue to negotiate with North Korea - less interested in the explicit outcome of that other than to make sure that the United States and North Korea continue to talk, that we don't go back to tension, to the fire and fury rhetoric that we saw about a year ago and the potential for conflict, which, again, is something that they want to avoid.

MARTIN: But I hear you saying that, in some ways, they do benefit from the status quo.

DENMARK: They do. They benefit in that they still have a say in what's going on. And there's also a lot of concern in some very important circles in Beijing about North Korea - if North Korea were to collapse, if North Korea were to reintegrate into the international system, that there may be an opportunity for the United States to have more influence in Northeast Asia, which China sees as its historical and rightful backyard.

MARTIN: What about South Korea? - the fact that there was no deal out of this. The U.S. walked away. North Korea walked away. This is a considerable setback for them now.

DENMARK: I think there's some disappointment in South Korea that we weren't able to come to an agreement. There was some concern that the United States would give away too much in these negotiations. So, I think, there was some relief that they didn't give away too much. But at the same time, there was a lot of hope that an agreement, especially to relieve some sanctions, would pave the way for a stronger interaction between North and South Korea, which has been the primary goal for South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a long time.

MARTIN: What about more broadly around the region? Any other countries that have a stake in this, how have they been reacting?

DENMARK: Well, it's interesting. Japan has a very significant interest in what's been happening. They're in range of North Korean missiles. There's a history of Japanese citizens that have been abducted by the North Koreans. And their status and whereabouts is still unknown for the most part. So there's still a lot of interest in Japan there. They're very supportive of the United States. Prime Minister Abe praised President Trump for not taking a bad deal. But he also declared that he should be the next person to negotiate with Kim Jong Un, to meet with Kim Jong Un. He has not done that yet. And Prime Minister Abe thinks that it's his idea. It's his turn...


DENMARK: ...To meet with the North Korean leader. But the chances of that are pretty unlikely.

MARTIN: All right. Abraham Denmark - he served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia in the Obama administration. He now directs the Asia Program at the Wilson Center. Thank you so much for coming in.

DENMARK: Thanks for having me.