Image of US President Donald Trump, China's leader Xi Jinping and North Korea's Kim Jong-un. Photo: Getty Image
Image of US President Donald Trump, China's leader Xi Jinping and North Korea's Kim Jong-un. Photo: Getty Image

Before playing a complex piece of music, the performers warm up: There is an initial tune-up dissonance. We are hearing some of that now, as North Korea threatens to walk off the stage. We don’t think it will. Political musicians are notoriously theatrical, but they get in tune in time for the opening curtain.

The planned Singapore summit has been correctly, albeit incompletely, described as an imperfectly coordinated but still extraordinarily daring quartet composition made up of US President Donald Trump, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Oops. Is there not a missing player? Not really. It is just that “China’s Core Leader” Xi Jinping’s important contribution has been half-hidden, and under-reported.

We will correct the omission. Among other things, we predict Xi will make sure Kim stays on key. Assuming all the members of what is then a quintet get on to the stage of action, we are able to speculate about the hoped-for plot line of the complex international opera, whose opening night is scheduled for June 12, 2018.

In music, a quintet is a challenge. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote to his father concerning his Quintet for Piano and Winds (K 452): “I myself consider it to be the best thing I have written in my life.” In the current political environment, a successful Singapore outcome will be as near a miracle as is Mozart’s.

Everyone wants the miracle to happen. We will now speculate on just how the five “voices” might just blend into a sort of harmony.

First, think about the under-reported actions of China, keeping in mind China’s national interest in the state of the Korean Peninsula.

Xi imperiously summoned Kim to Beijing twice. Kim obeyed (and that is certainly the correct verb). It wasn’t an invitation to a tea party. We hypothesize that Kim was told his personal survival was at stake.

We think the following points were made quite clear to him: First, China has historically always demanded that its border states be tribute-paying vassals, who are more or less allowed to govern their own dominions, but never in ways that threatened in any way the foreign or domestic policies of the Chinese Empire.

Second, no vassal state is allowed to open the border to any great state foreign power, either by making friends with such a rival to China or by way of giving such a rival good cause to smash the vassal in consequence of the vassal having foolishly given the rival a good excuse to kill it.

Third, if we, China, choose to remove you, Kim, and replace you with a more compliant vassal, no other government in the world will rescue you. We, the authors of this essay, have ourselves outlined a “kidnap to Elba” North Korea regime-change plan, conjoining China and the US, in order to eliminate Kim’s power to disturb the peace at the border.

A number of additional lessons will have been made exquisitely clear to Kim by Xi, but they all add up to the following order/promise, emperor to vassal: Make peace with Trump or one or the other of us will take you out. On the other hand, follow orders (and like an obedient vassal, hand over as a tribute to us your super-weapons) and we will guarantee your personal survival, along with some possible benefits to the people of North Korea.

Meanwhile, via a back-door channel, Xi gets Trump to agree to a secret pledge of no regime change, and long-run recognition of the 38th Parallel as a stable boundary: that is, no demand for peninsular unification.

If Kim has sufficient desire for self-survival, the previously inharmonious national interests of the other parties come into tune

If Kim has sufficient desire for self-survival, the previously inharmonious national interests of the other parties come into tune.

South Korea’s population of 51 million, all living within the circle of North Korea’s military killing power, are still within range, but realize that Kim’s own personal interest is to leave them alone. President Moon (and all of South Korea) will be well positioned to benefit from investment and trade benefits coming from an economic opening of the North/South border. Such an opening is a distinct possibility once Kim gets over his fear that his own survival is threatened by political unification under the Southern flag.

In other words, after success at the Singapore summit, Kim will see benefits from gradual economic semi-unification, as long as political unification (after he is removed via regime change) is off the table.

Trump, assuming success in Singapore, is relieved of some of the cost of maintaining a large “tripwire” military presence in South Korea. He no longer needs to pretend that America seeks (at least in the short run) unification on Seoul’s terms. He can afford to be realistic about reality. He knows, at least in his heart, that such a demand could never be realized, any more than could a Chinese request to support and “weaponize” the existence of a high-powered Cuba 150 kilometers from Florida.

Moreover, major American profits are waiting to be earned from investments in much needed North Korean infrastructure and basic industrial set-ups there. Intra-peninsular profits will follow from America’s partnership with South Korea (such partner deals will supply a degree of political risk insurance for the US side).

Of course, the biggest payoff of all will be the elimination of otherwise threatened war.

China can step forward out of the shadows of this deal and offer itself as the receiver of North Korea’s atomic and ballistic weaponry. Trump’s key demand that North Korea is completely “de-nuked” is otherwise quite difficult to realize. The politics of seeing all that killing power shipped off to somewhere under the American umbrella is otherwise too unpalatable to America’s critics in the rest of the world.

Also, not only Kim but Xi would, in the case where the goods are transferred to American hands, lose face among China’s friends and vassals in Asia.

The US presence in Asia must realistically be preserved after Singapore, but for it to be seriously advanced, as would follow that a Trump take-over of the weapons would be provocative and, more to the point, unnecessary. The North Korean weapons cache is too small to make any difference in the existing US or Chinese strike power, and so there is no pressing practical need for the war goods to be taken over by either player.

But the politics do count. China needs to get some bragging rights out of this deal, and the weapons’ transfer to them would provide exactly that.

Japan only needs to be able to “breathe easy” after Singapore, and should things work out as we have outlined, Tokyo’s national interest is served. Absent Singapore success, the Japanese will need their own nuclear arsenal, along with having to bear the resulting economic and political costs.

Moreover, the investment opportunities that, after Singapore success, appear for Japan will give Abe a chance to return, to a limited degree, to the historical and logical role the Japanese have played on the Korean Peninsula ever since AD 1905.

To sum up, we say that, like the piano part in Mozart’s K 452, China plays an organizing role in the Singapore “symphony.” Xi has important notes to strike at the beginning as well as the end of the orchestration. We say this not to diminish Trump’s claim on the Nobel Peace Prize, but to suggest that all five of the players in this harmonic be congratulated (assuming they perform their parts in concert.)

Tom Velk is a libertarian-leaning American economist who teaches and lives in Montreal, Canada. He is the chairman of the North American studies program at McGill University and a professor in that university's economics department. Jade Xiao is a McGill University graduate.