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What if the North Korean nuclear gamble works?

What if the North Korean nuclear gamble works?
Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un

Despite concerns about a wild-eyed, unrestrained, destructive Trump administration, sombre, sober observers are starting to wonder – what if the Trumpean gamble on North Korea will actually work?

A column by two retired, very serious, sombre senators, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar (one a Democrat and the other a Republican), in The Washington Post on Tuesday was entitled, We’re all preparing for the Trump-Kim summit to go wrong. But what if it goes right?”

This unlikely but thoroughly provocative headline got us thinking about the many implications – and possible outcomes – of such an event, especially given the two men’s sterling credentials as foreign policy wizards who still fairly ooze respectability.

(South Africans may recall Richard Lugar as one of the key figures in the Senate who helped move Ronald Reagan away from constructive engagement; while Sam Nunn helped keep centrist internationalism alive in the Democratic Party for decades, despite the hangover from the Vietnam War disaster.)

Or, as the two senators have written:

As the United States prepares for historic discussions between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the Trump administration and its international partners have a lot of work ahead of them. A successful summit, if it can be achieved, will be only the start of a long and complicated process. Eliminating the nuclear threat and achieving stability and security on the Korean Peninsula will require unconventional thinking and steps that are much broader than denuclearisation. Just as we should prepare for the summit to go wrong, we should also prepare for it to ‘go right’.”

First of all, even before it happens, of course, there is the fact that such an eventuality would have previously been seen as wildly implausible at best, and, more likely, totally ridiculous. This was true even after the incandescent “little rocket man” and “big red button” rhetorical flourishes had cooled down some, and the beginnings of more normal diplomatic interaction were now a faint glimmer on the horizon.

Then as the PyeongChang Winter Olympics – the so-called “Peace Games” – came along in February 2018, North Korea actually sent athletes southwards to participate. But not just a few athletes. They came to the games in a delegation that included senior government officials, including Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister, a rhythmic placard team, martial arts demonstrators, a team of ice-skating competitors, and, most important, half of a female ice hockey team that married up with a South Korean team. Well, okay, that joint ice hockey team was a bit of a doormat for its opponents (many of whose teams had trained together for years), but the Koreans had actually coalesced as a united team.

After that, as we now know, came a (secret) meeting between the North Korean leader and Mike Pompeo, then America’s CIA director and its soon-to-be secretary of state. That meeting became public knowledge in the run-up to the upcoming summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un planned for the peace village next to the Demilitarised Zone at the end of April.

For this meeting, there have even been announcements about the formal dinner menu that draws specifically on food favourites from Moon’s home village and from Pyongyang. Koreans, like other East Asians operating in the diplomatic realm, plan things very, very carefully, meticulously, and everything associated with such a meal has deeply symbolic, even semiotic-like content.

While the auguries are, so far, favourable, this meeting could become a doorway to a much larger, more general settlement for the peninsula, or it could break down into acrimonious discord, or it could just become a pro forma, kabuki-esque performance of stylised charge/countercharge. There is no way, yet, to handicap it.

Then, of course, there is the “main event”, now just over the time horizon: the Kim-Trump meeting. The US president had accepted an invitation to meet with Kim, delivered by the South Korean national security advisor when he had come to Washington to brief his counterparts on a meeting between representatives from the South and the North that had followed the Olympics.

Trump’s acceptance of the meeting had come before White House staffers and other officials had even had a chance to game the various scenarios of such a possible meeting. With a meeting date still to be confirmed, with a venue still up in the air, and with a divide between what Kim is saying and what Trump is hearing, the planned summit still has a whole raft of potentially fatal stumbling blocks ahead, even before the meeting takes place and the first words of greeting are exchanged by the two principals.

For one thing, even the process of deciding on the date and meeting format have elements of symbolic arm wrestling in them, as both sides push to gain more control and leverage over the event. Similarly, the decision over the location of the meeting – and who else ends up officially observing from the sidelines (China? Russia? Japan? South Korea? The UN? The EU?) – may also be the subject of more wrestling as both protagonists struggle to show who’s largest and in-charge-ist.

And then there is the problem that North Korea probably does not have any jet aircraft capable of making a non-stop, direct flight to any location beyond the immediate Northeast Asian neighbourhood – Mongolia, China, the two Koreas, and Japan. Most of those are non-starters for various reasons, so smart money is gradually beginning to move towards Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbataar. Really. Now that would be a first.

It is important to remember that Koreans have been studying how to influence and affect American behaviour for decades. The North Koreans have participated in – and arguably deliberately scuppered – a number of ultimately failed negotiations in an earlier period of North Korean nuclear development back in the 1990s.

By contrast, the Trump administration has a depleted cadre of Korea experts in place, no ambassador in South Korea, and not even a senior East Asia specialist as assistant secretary of state in position. Trump clearly believes this whole thing can be done seat-of-the-pants, improvisational style, as might have been the method for wheeling and dealing in a real estate negotiations poker game. Beyond North Korea itself, any negotiations on that topic can have repercussions for how the US approaches the P5+1 nuclear accord with Iran, and even the Syrian civil war, trade tussles with China, and sanctions and election interference charges towards Russia. All imponderables at this point.

Moreover, the disjuncture between what Kim presumably means when he says he is prepared to speak about denuclearisation and his halt to further testing may be very different from what Donald Trump is hearing – or wants to hear. To Kim, denuclearisation presumably means that the entire peninsula becomes off-limits to nuclear weapons-capable military units and facilities, that the US and any other non-Korean forces roll back their positions on the peninsula and that a series of international guarantees – involving China, Russia, Japan and the US – establish the sanctity of the DMZ as an international boundary, until such time as the two halves of the peninsula organically reintegrate themselves as one nation.

By contrast, the Trumpian meaning of denuclearisation almost certainly means that North Korea renounces its nuclear ambitions, further testing of weapons or delivery missiles, the dialling back of nuclear research facilities, and thorough, comprehensive inspections of all of this. Between these two poles, there is, to put it mildly, a gap.

Senators Lugar and Nunn argue that this discussion is more important than simply between the US and North Korea, or the two Koreas. As they wrote:

The stakes are high. The Korean Peninsula is the most militarised region in the world. North Korea has nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that can reach the United States, as well as South Korea and Japan — two allies the United States has pledged to defend. The entire world has an interest in ensuring the security of North Korea’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and weapons-usable materials. The North also has thousands of artillery tubes located within 30 miles or so of Seoul, a formidable conventional threat to the South Korean capital and its population, including thousands of Americans living there.

Even if the two leaders reach an agreement, achieving security and stability and reducing catastrophic risks on the peninsula will require intensive, expert-level negotiations and comprehensive, step-by-step implementation over many months, or perhaps years. This cannot be viewed as a bilateral U.S.-North Korean discussion — it must also include China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, and it must address regional security and the political concerns of all the parties, including economic and humanitarian matters.”

But let’s assume, just for an instant, as do the two senators, that such negotiations are possible, and that the two summits – collectively – do set such things in motion to generate real, sustained progress. And that, further, the rational good feeling between the respective participants in the summits leads to a whole range of confidence building measures, proposals for further discussions and detailed negotiations, timelines for their successful completion, as well as a slate of sports, educational and cultural exchanges to underline the progress made so far – and to point the way to more. (After all, who would have expected the equivalent so quickly after the initial meetings between the US and China back in the 1970s in the midst of the Vietnam War; the US and Russia, post-the breakup of the Soviet Union, or a whole range of topics; or the current level of relationships between the US and Vietnam, for that matter?)

Anyway, we were so intrigued at this question that we trundled out Daily Maverick’s creaky DeLorean time machine to see what we could glimpse of future developments on the Korean Peninsula. Sadly, the flux capacitor was in a slight state of quantum instability, and was only able to get us transported as far as 10 December 2018. And for some reason, it deposited us in front of the city’s town hall in Oslo, Norway, rather than in Washington or near the DMZ. It seemed weird, but just maybe there was a good reason for this miscue on the part of the GPS-temporal location interface controls. And so there was.

We discovered we were in Oslo just as the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize was about to be conferred. And there were four recipients this year, it seemed. It is, in fact, not remarkable for the Nobel Prize committee to grant its big prize to multiple recipients. South Africans should find it easy to recall the joint award to then-President FW de Klerk and not-yet-President Nelson Mandela for bringing about a peaceful transition in South Africa, as opposed to a racial civil war, for example. And there have been other multiple group winners over the years as well.

But what astounded us most was the particular composition of this year’s winners club, gathered together on seats in front of the glittering audience, just off from centre-stage. There they were, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Canadian women’s ice hockey coach Sarah Murray, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and Donald Trump. As the Norwegian king strode to the dais to read the citation, the four winners stepped forward in tandem to hear the lines of fulsome praise, to receive their certificates and medals (the cheques come separately), and to collectively shake the king’s hand and turn to face the vast number of media photographers and camera operators from the entire globe for the their joint photo opportunity.

In part, the citation that the king read noted:

“… transcending seven decades of stubborn hostilities and then seemingly-unending military threats, these four individuals demonstrated they could produce a decisive break with that past, and lead the Korean Peninsula away from the possibilities of devastating warfare and mass destruction – and towards the opportunities that the peaceful resolution of differences and increasing co-operation can achieve for the people of Korea and the rest of us….

Specifically, Ms Sarah Murphy, as the coach of a joint team of North and South Korean female ice hockey stars in the most recent Winter Olympics, provided unparalleled leadership as an example of how competition – and international co-operation – in sports can set the table for politicians to follow in those footsteps.

President Moon Jae-in has demonstrated how a wise and visionary leader can hear the inner desires of so many of his nation’s citizens to achieve a rapprochement with North Korea. In so doing, he took the steps needed to move these negotiations forward, despite the dire possibilities of failure and renewed discord.

And Presidents Kim and Trump, together, were able to move beyond their previous harsh rhetoric to reach past decades of hostility. By doing this, they have taken decisive steps that will continue to provide dividends for the lives of their respective citizens and their descendants.

All four recipients of this award deserve the thanks and appreciation of the global community in translating the desires and hopes of the founder of this prize, the late Alfred Nobel, in the words of the biblical figure of Isaiah the prophet, ‘And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plough-shares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ ”

But at that moment, the DeLorean’s machinery gave disturbing noises that caused us to leap quickly back into the driver’s seat and activate the pre-set course for home. But before the vehicle sped backwards and away into the present, we just managed to catch sight of one of the media representatives’ tablets. On it was displayed a breaking story from The Washington Post, with the headlines: “Mueller Probe Indicts President’s Men; Hidden Documents Showed Linkage to Russian Bot Farm”. And there were subheads, “Congressional committees in an uproar; Sean Hannity insists president did not collude; Attorney General Sessions resigns; Mueller delivers full report on Monday.”

And then we were back from the future. Should we tell anyone? And if so, what? DM

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