Trump-Kim meet cloaked in uncertainty
After going back and forth on meeting Kim, Trump has now kept the door open for the summit. But as long as Washington insists on ‘complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation’ of North Korea, and Pyongyang keeps its vow never to give up its nuclear deterrence until it feels safe from what it terms as ‘US aggression’, no tangible outcome can ever be expected
After generating much hype for a possible breakthrough in North Korea’s nuclear weapons issue through a summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on June 12 in Singapore, in just a three-paragraph terse letter that began with “Dear Mr Chairman”, Trump pulled out of the planned meet, blaming “tremendous anger” and “open hostility” from North Korea. Further, he threatened to use nuclear weapons, if necessary. In the letter, he also stated: “If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.” He described the cancellation of the summit as “a tremendous setback” for North Korea and warned that the US military is ready to act should Pyongyang take any “foolish and reckless” action. Hours later, Pyongyang said it was ready to meet with the US “at any time”. Following this, Trump quickly responded, saying that his proposed meeting with Kim — that he had cancelled a day earlier — could still be held on June 12.
Such a casual manner of conducting diplomacy smacks of immaturity by the leader of the sole superpower, bordering on recklessness — no different from the much maligned North Korean leader. If both leaders show such irresponsible stances on an issue serious enough to merit astute diplomatic skills, no summit could ever happen. The manner in which negotiations were going on since Kim’s peace overtures, it appears unsurprising to watchers of Korean affairs that Trump brought the curtain down on the meet. Though the window has been kept open, it is difficult to have an optimistic view of the future. So long as Washington insists on its demands for “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation” of the North, and Pyongyang keeps its vow never to give up its nuclear deterrence until it feels safe from what it terms as “the US aggression”, no tangible outcome can ever be expected.
Reactions from around the world
The reactions from the stakeholders were on expected lines. Being confused over Trump’s cancellation announcement, there was a sense of disappointment and deep concern. The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed concern at a public lecture in Geneva. He urged the parties to continue dialogue to find a path towards the verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. Though China did not react immediately, Hu Xijin — the editor of the Global Times owned by the Communist Party, which reflects the official thinking — was critical. Interestingly, Trump’s announcement came a few hours after Pyongyang dismantled its nuclear site in the presence of international journalists.
In Europe, British Prime Minister Theresa May was also not pleased with Trump’s decision. The response was mixed in the US, with several Republicans supporting Trump or taking the opportunity to criticise North Korea. On the other hand, Republicans, such as Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, described the decision as “an error”. He observed: “This is what happens when amateurs are combined with warmongers. This is not secretly smart and clever, and any pundit or politician who even flirts with that idea is deeply, deeply, unserious.”
Though it was always desirable and worth pursuing to talk with the North, the manner in which it was worked out, the prospects for a one-on-one summit always looked fragile. Going ahead with a meeting without adequate advance preparation and proper homework with little chance of success itself was a mistake. This not only exposed Trump’s political immaturity in conducting diplomacy but marked another mistake by the administration, which the President as well as his advisors need to ponder over. It seemed to be a late awakening on the part of Trump that Kim was never sincere about discussing a formula to abandon his nuclear weapons programme. Seen differently, Trump was not mature enough to understand what Kim meant by “denuclearisation”, the definition of which was radically different from Trump’s own. Trump could have feared that he would have struck a bad deal and earned temporary applause, whose implication would not have been to the interest of the world community. By cancelling the summit, the chance for future negotiations has been kept open and can be resumed once the process is onto a more productive track. However, those who uphold such a view could be seen as Trump’s sycophants, whose views would mean nothing.
Trump’s decision to cancel also risks souring ties with South Korea as the latter could start perceiving that the US could not be trusted. As a result, Moon Jae-in is likely to tilt more towards China, much to the detriment of the US. If both China and South Korea urge a lifting of sanctions should Trump continue to waver, Japan shall feel more isolated. That could lead Japan to rethink its own option, including bolstering its defences as well as exploring options to have its own nuclear weapons. Though such a scenario does not seem possible in the near future, in the long run, it might not be unthinkable.
This makes a serious case for Trump to rethink his own policy, including assuring China and its two Asian allies that he is still open to serious talks. Now that Kim again offered for talk anytime and anywhere, it would be a serious mistake if Trump remains rigid in his demand. Though at the moment both sides remain stuck on their rigid stances, unless they sit across the table, it would be difficult to know who concedes how much so that a mutually agreeable agreement can be explored. Not only should Trump stop his belligerent statements and threats to use nuclear weapons, and rein in his officials to not indulge in any fiery rhetoric, he should be more considerate to Pyongyang’s demands and see what comes out from a meeting. He needs to tell his National Security Advisor John R Bolton not to raise the Libya model, which shall only harden Kim’s position. The US, not North Korea, should be seen as the party most committed to a peaceful resolution.
Countries in possession of nuclear weapons have a heightened sense of power and it is logical for Kim to expect/demand to be treated as an equal on any bargaining table. It is here that Trump ought to learn to respect Kim as the leader of a sovereign power and not treat him as a subordinate. Continuous nuclear threat, bluster and bullying on trade and other foreign policy issues are always counterproductive. Despite North Korea’s limited access to the outside world, either by choice or engineered isolation by the world, it is not entirely friendless. North Korea has survived despite sanctions and China shall ensure that the nation does not collapse ever. A divided Korea always suits Beijing and it would be foolhardy to expect any change from such a position. So, Trump would need help. Though Japan and the US have been on the same page so far, the situation can dramatically alter if Japan suddenly confronts an unpleasant situation for its security needs.
Annoying China would also be unwise for Trump. He may be worried about the balance of trade excessively in favour of China and is engaged in a bargaining chip with potential clash over agricultural tariffs, but if he links this with sanctions enforcement, that would be unwise because enforcing sanctions is a UN obligation, not only that of the US.
Against this background, a negotiated settlement is the only desirable route to secure peace on the Korean Peninsula. In order to make that possible, Trump needs to be ready to accept something less than the complete and irreversible denuclearisation. This won’t be exactly what Trump wants, but at least would reduce the North Korean threat to a more manageable level. In order to do that, Trump and his advisors ought to be more sophisticated in their choice of words, and not say things that could infuriate the North Korean leader.
Without understanding the nuances of diplomatic niceties and including much hyperbole, Trump prematurely minted a coin showing both Trump and Kim in order to commemorate the summit. The cancellation inspired many jokes about it, an unnecessary and surely an avoidable decision. Some Republican lawmakers even suggested a Nobel for Trump! Such things only lower the dignity of the Presidential office, and it’s time that Trump learns some lessons from the botched negotiations and a potential disaster that was accidentally avoided.
The North Korean issue is not that simple and there cannot be any quick-fix solution. If a trigger-happy Trump does not change track, an unintentional conflict could break out and assume a global dimension. If he chooses to be more suave, patient, and a bit tolerant, he could be in a position of strength to deal with some of the world’s issues. The choice is Trump’s, not Kim’s.
Moon’s sustained efforts
International leaders were kept guessing as to what comes next in discussions about nuclear disarmament. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who invested so much for initiating the peace process, said Trump’s “very regrettable” announcement was perplexing. Moon called an emergency meeting of top aides to “figure out” the next steps. It was only days before he had travelled to Washington to have personal talks with Trump and seemed to have persuaded him to take a conciliatory position. Reiterating his conciliatory tone, Moon observed, “Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and enduring peace are historic tasks that cannot be abandoned or delayed.
The sincerity of the parties, who have tried to solve the problem, has not changed.” Given Trump’s impetuous decision-making style, Moon’s wish could remain unfulfilled.
Not to give up, Moon had a meeting for the second time in a month with Kim on May 27 at the northern side of Panmunjom to discuss carrying out the peace commitments they reached in their earlier summit, and Kim’s potential meeting with Trump. He is the only second South Korean leader to have met a North Korean leader twice, both times in the DMZ, which is a symbol of the unending hostilities between the nations after the Korean War ended in 1953 in a truce, not a peace treaty.
Moon’s second meeting with Kim came after South Korea expressed relief over possible revived talks between Trump and Kim after a whirlwind 24 hours during which Trump announced cancellation only to say soon that it is potentially back on, and if it happens, there shall be no change in date and venue. Following Moon’s first summit with Kim, Seoul tried to sell their talks as a meaningful breakthrough that sets the stage for a Trump-Kim summit. However, beneath such optimism lies a lot of suspicion as demonstrated by North cancelling a high-level meeting with Seoul over the latter’s participation in regular military exercises with the US. Pyongyang insisted that its return to talks is on the condition that its grievances are addressed. Yet, an ever-optimist Moon urged Washington and Pyongyang to resolve their differences through “more direct and closer dialogue between their leaders”.
Whatsoever Moon may have assiduously pursued with sincere intentions, Kim’s unpredictable nature exposed the fragility of Seoul as an intermediary. The damage was further compounded for Seoul as it began to dawn in South Korea that the nation may not be seen in the same light as a traditional ally by the Trump administration. This means the traditional alliance relationship could face risk of being overhauled, much to the detriment of South Korea.
As said, Kim demands respect to be treated as equal. Pyongyang took offense to US Vice-President Mike Pence’s comments that North Korea could end up like Libya if Kim failed to make a deal. North Korean diplomat Choe Son Hui retaliated by calling Pence a “political dummy” and his comments “stupid and ignorant”. In an unusually restrained and diplomatic response to Trump, North Korea expressed willingness to sit for talks “at any time, (in) any format”. What transpires from these developments is probably eagerness for sanctions relief to build his economy and the international legitimacy that the planned summit would have provided. This does not mean that Kim was willing to relinquish the nuclear arsenal in his possession, which it sees as the only guarantee of survival. What Kim meant to achieve from the summit was a part of arms control negotiation between two nuclear states rather than a process to surrender his nukes. If Trump does not understand that Pyongyang does not want to participate in talks, where it would be unilaterally pressured to give up its nukes, it smacks of his political immaturity in understanding international diplomacy.
Earlier, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put the onus on Kim if the summit gets back on track but showed optimism towards its resumption even before Trump hinted about it, suggesting that Pompeo has substantial diplomatic skill to influence and guide Trump. Even Choe Son Hui, North Korea’s Vice-Foreign Minister had warned that “whether the US will meet us in a meeting room or encounter us at a nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon America’s decision and behaviour”.
Now that either side has shown interest in resuming the stalled summit plan and if finally it goes ahead, it will be the first meeting between a US and North Korean leader during more than six decades of hostility, and “it would come just months after the North’s rapid progress toward attaining a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike America fuelled fears of war”. Despite the prospect of the stalled summit resuming, Pyongyang is unlikely to accept, what it calls, a “one-sided demand” that it gives up its nuclear weapons.
Where Trumped seems to have erred is that he allowed his hawkish NSA Bolton to give the example of Libya model as the way to address the North Korean issue. Pyongyang took particular offense on such comparison. After Libya relinquished its nuclear programme in the early 2000s in exchange for sanctions relief, its long-time autocratic leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed several years later after a Western-backed military intervention. Kim is aware of this and it would be stupid to expect that Kim would be willing to fall into such a trap. For Kim, his nukes guarantee that its authoritarian regime would not face the same fate as Libya and Iraq and therefore prefers a “phased and synchronous” approach to denuclearisation. China, too, supports its stance.
The key issue remains in a flux. For the US, denuclearisation covers nuclear weapons, missiles, engines and systems related to space launch rockets, production of fissile materials and associated technology and research. Pyongyang’s definition of denuclearisation is different.
What is Japan’s position in the US-North Korea imbroglio? Japan is blinded by its support to Trump as it has no choice. For Tokyo, holding a meeting should not in itself be a priority in diplomatic exchanges with the nuclear-armed hermit state. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga underlined the importance of making progress in issues over nuclear weapons, missiles and the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. Given Pyongyang’s past record of repeated betrayals — having backed away from deals on which it had agreed — Japanese experts and diplomats are sceptical about Kim’s denuclearisation talks.
Unless the two sides come considerably closer together on the denuclearisation question or accept a lower bar for success, not much can be expected even if the summit happens. If the summit happens and eventually fails to arrive at an agreement, talks of military option could return to Trump’s table. This then would be a matter of grave concern.
Though there could be a possibility of the two parties returning to talks, no one can say with any certainty that it would happen. One opinion is that Trump’s willingness to talk with Pyongyang rattled Kim, compelling him to respond, expressing to talk “at any time”. The other view is that an impending crisis was averted when Kim and Moon decided to meet on April 27. When the situation looked good with the prospect of a Trump-Kim summit, it was Trump who pulled the plug, only to reverse his decision within 24 hours. Normalcy seemed to return when a team of US officials met North Koreans in Panmunjom on May 27 and continued for the next two days to work out a way. A separate team of officials flew to Singapore to lay the ground for the meeting.
The summit announcement was made in haste without adequate preparations and it is not unsurprising that it threatened to end in a whimper, until a new spark was ignited. Even that is uncertain. The advance teams are engaged now to work out the protocol details. But the sticking point is going to be in defining the word ‘denuclearisation’, on which there remains huge differences on interpretation. Kim is unlikely to cede his nuclear deterrent and accept Trump’s demand for complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation. What the two leaders would discuss, if at all the summit happens, and what compromise could be expected, who is bringing what to the table and willing to concede and many more are issues for which it is even difficult to hazard a guess. At least if some confidence-building steps are started, if not a full agreement acceptable to both, that could be a good start in seeking peace in the Korean Peninsula that has remained elusive so far. If Kim is given security guarantees that the US would not try to topple the regime, Trump could expect some flexibility in Kim’s toughened stance. At the moment, it is premature to talk about a possible outcome with any certainty, should the summit take place.
Dr Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow at the IDSA, was until recently ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan
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