Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un meet: Denuclearisation may be complex, but summit was a victory for US president
US president Donald Trump can certainly claim a victory in the fact that he got one of the most recalcitrant regimes in the world to come and sign a deal.
The summit of the year has just finished, accompanied by the din of clicking shutters, as cameramen recorded what is probably the least winsome twosome that ever got together. US president Donald Trump can certainly claim a victory in the fact that he got one of the most recalcitrant regimes in the world to come and sign a deal that promises to denuclearise the Korean peninsula.
The term ‘denuclearise’ is, however, a very complicated term, particularly since the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has a full hand in terms of the missile and nuclear capability. But the first step has been taken, and with it will come a series of other changes that could lead to a shift in the history of the peninsula and that of the countries around it.
The agreement between the two leaders is now out. It’s a short one, and simply commits the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) to denuclearisation and the US to provide security guarantees, unspecified as to its extent. The media will undoubtedly have a field day criticising its lack of specificity. But this is really all that is required from a presidential-level meeting. Besides, it contained one line, that committed the DPRK to the Panmunjom Declaration.
That document is fairly detailed and includes among other things, a “joint liaison office with resident representatives of both sides… in order to facilitate close consultation between the authorities”, a series of military measures to bring down tensions, and to carry out disarmament in a phased manner. That is the most sensitive document of all, even more than any forthcoming agreements on verification. It depends heavily on South Korea keeping its head and not responding to probable North Korean needling. That’s going to be very difficult to implement, and even more difficult to predict in terms of its sustainability.
Meanwhile, as Trump stated clearly, the US gave up nothing at all. The 32,000 troops in South Korea will remain as also the 50,000 odd troops in Japan. So will US sanctions, with the president referring to another tranche of actions that was being held in reserve. That’s a lot of things that will continue until North Korea takes the first steps to start the process.
In short, all that the US president gave the 26-year-old dictator was a photo opportunity of the decade, and a chance to turn his country into another Seoul. The naysayers will hate it, but this is truly a Trump victory—for now—and if he chose to call Kim and his parents his ‘friends’, that’s part of his negotiation style. The Canadians may not like it, but his constituency will.
Most the questions addressed to the US president during the presser immediately after the summit were on the issue of verification of future denulearisation. The US has a long experience of verifying arms control agreements from the 1970s, and technology has improved immensely since then. It's as well to note that Japan and South Korea as well as China itself will probably also be watching.
Pyongyang will want something in return at each step, and here’s the surprise. Trump said that the ‘bill’ will be footed by the South Koreans and the Japanese. The US apparently is done with paying for others' security. That was a surprise, and has yet to be elucidated. Trump is also looking at saving money on expensive war games. This is a president that is a careful housekeeper. And his abiding line is that he’s not letting anyone rob the American people. All of that will sell very well with his voters, even if it's not true. The US has never been one for freebies.
There’s one thing the US president didn’t seem to get. He wondered aloud why an agreement with the DPRK had not been reached sooner. That shows a lack of understanding of just how "talented" his favourite world leader is. Chairman Kim waited until he had a working, effective capability to not only hit Japan (not to mention South Korea whom he can flatten) but also US territory with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
This is a smart man who’s read his arms control history. The US has never, ever done a good deal with a country that has questionable capability. One only has to look at the Iran negotiations to get that clear. Besides, it’s a good idea when negotiating, to do it with a full hand. And North Korea has a very full hand indeed. None of that is going to go anywhere without hefty economic assistance, and a lot of time, with many a slip likely, that could jettison the whole deal.
Meanwhile, true success will be reached when each player in this complicated game can claim a victory of its own. The fact remains that the first leader Chairman Kim met was President Xi Jinping of China. At the calm and very controlled meeting, Kim looked anything but happy, unlike his beaming smiles alongside the US president. He was sent across Chinese airspace in an aircraft loaned by Beijing, probably loaded with listening devices. This agreement had President Xi’s fingerprints all over. The question is what the ‘quid pro quo’ is likely to be, and is something that will be of central concern to every country, including India.
The most sensitive negotiations are yet to come, and most of it will be held in secret, with Japan and South Korea among others. The weapons inspections teams have to be set up and the issue of abducted Japanese dealt with. North Korea is still one of the most secretive places on earth, and it's unclear whether there is any threat to Kim himself. After all, the country has paid a very great cost to build up this nuclear arsenal.
And finally, there is the largest question of all. To whom will a largely reunited Korea turn? It would be ironic if the peace deal of the decade would be the pace setter for another war for influence on the peninsula. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, Trump can take a bow, while his negotiators make sure that the applause doesn’t die down.
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