US-North Korea summit

Trump’s Nixon Goes to China Moment or All Smoke and Mirrors?

US President Donald J. Trump (R) and North Korean Chairmain Kim Jong-un (L) shake hands after signing a document during their historic DPRK-US summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island, Singapore, 12 June 2018. The summit marks the first meeting between an incumbent US President and a North Korean leader. EPA-EFE/KEVIN LIM / THE STRAITS TIMES / SPH EDITORIAL USE ONLY EDITORIAL USE ONLY

On 12 June, US President Donald Trump and North Korean President Kim Jong Un – after a year and a half of huffing and puffing and waving their red buttons at each other – finally actually really met in a luxury hotel in Singapore and achieved a photo opportunity, a handshake and a look at Trump’s presidential limo, “The Beast”. At least initially, the meeting achieved the possibility of future meetings and the possibility of a tangible outcome. Some day.

Well, there it was. It was finally happening. Fresh from his latest triumph at the G-7 meeting in Quebec, Canada – where he had snarled at, verbally spat upon, and jousted with the other six national leaders from the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Canada – and thereupon got into a particularly nasty, appalling spat in particular with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trump arrived at the summit late and then left early, apparently so he could avoid speaking about climate change or signing on to the usual joint communiqué that has been a fixture of such meetings since they began.

And then, in order to put some positive spin on his actions in Quebec and to demonstrate the kind of Trumpian strength that would be a cautionary message to Trump’s next diplomatic engagee, his economics and trade hatchment-henchmen – Larry Kudlow and Peter Navarro to be specific – said despicable things about Trudeau that were unprecedented in international relations between friendly nations, including that there is a special circle of hell set aside for someone like the Canadian prime minister and that the usually mild-mannered Trudeau had stabbed the US president in the back. Oh boy. That was some show.

Damn. Toss out that venerable diplomatic playbook language guide that has been in effect, largely since the kings of France and England met on the Field of the Cloth of Gold. But then it was time to move on to Singapore and be adoring and loving to an authoritarian ruler after trashing relationships with a whole bevy of traditional allies.

And so with that, Donald Trump was in Singapore for a momentous US-North Korea summit meeting. After overnighting in two separate but nearby five-star hotels in downtown Singapore, the two men came together for a meeting in a secluded hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, located on the southern coast of the island city-state of Singapore. This is a hotel whose façade bears a startling retro resemblance to that old British colonial masterpiece of the Raffles Hotel.

In fact, by the time you have read these words, Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had concluded their highly unusual face-to-face summit. Cue the drum roll and the ominous yet hopeful soundtrack right about now, it would seem, given Trump’s words that he and Kim now have a “special bond”.

What a ginormous contrast to just a year or so ago. At that time, Trump and Kim were still mired at the pre-teenager stage of calling each other inventive but thoroughly nasty epithets, ranging from threatening mutual nuclear destruction, and ravings about their respective nuclear weapons capabilities and the big and little red buttons that could launch “fire and fury” on each other’s nations. Subsequently, a truly mind-bending number of different things have happened.

The two leaders dialled down that incendiary rhetoric. Then the North and South Koreans came together to bring North Koreans into the February Winter Olympics in the South, including a joint women’s ice hockey team on the ice; Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In met right at the demilitarised zone that separates the two nations; and then a number of quiet meetings – and some not so quiet, not so private ones – brought American officials to Pyongyang and vice versa to begin to talk things through, mano-a-mano. And now the fates have brought the two leaders together in Singapore as the talks commenced at around 10am, Tuesday.

At the outset, at least, the two nations’ positions were rather far apart. In fact, they were sufficiently far apart that it was a reasonable bet that, ultimately, the two sides would have ended up with a friendly handshake, a hug, an embrace for the media – and not a whole lot more. On the one hand, Donald Trump expected to call on Kim to renounce his country’s nuclear ambitions and their further development – permanently and decisively, with full on-site inspections over their dismantlement – in return for some kind of unspecified security guarantees that set out a peaceful regimen on the peninsula and the temptations of development assistance and enhanced trade.

Just before this meeting schedule gelled, some of Trump’s minions managed to stir the pot more than a bit by putting down a kind of accidental (?) marker that North Korea should accept the denuclearisation deal agreed to by Libya back in 2005. The fact that Libya’s leader then disappeared from his position half a decade later would have seemed, at least to some, to be a counter to the idea that accepting the Trumpian deal can necessarily be a very good thing for leadership tenure for the longer haul. Kim almost certainly has paid attention to that turn of events as part of the scenario building the North Koreans engaged in for this negotiation.

From the North Korean side, it has long been understood that, optimally, Kim has been seeking binding, enforceable security guarantees, the drawing down of American forces on the peninsula, a peace treaty (presumably with the US, although the Korean conflict was actually between North Korea and the UN) and the peeling back of the entire sanctions regimen that has been put into place over the years in response to North Korean obdurateness over nuclear testing and development. The North Koreans have, after all, already gained one key objective North Korean leaders have been angling for, for years. They’ve gained a face-to-face meeting with an American president, and international respect and treatment as respected equals. Not surprisingly, they attribute more than a little of these developments to their possession of those nukes and missiles that helped even up the power dynamic.

Just before the actual discussion began, we tried to think through four possible outcomes from the Kim-Trump meeting. These were: Trump storms out; Kim withdraws; the photo moment/handshake summit; and miraculous agreement on all fronts. Let’s take them in sequence.

Trump storms out. The president is already on record regarding what he wanted from this meeting, and he has also added that he would know in a minute or so whether this was going to be a good negotiation or a total waste of his valuable time. In the hours just before the meeting, the White House had announced that Trump would depart late on 12 June after the meeting, rather than staying later for follow-up discussions. That could easily be read as a ramping up of pressure on the Koreans to come to the party. Or, it could be a sign that the Trump White House had deduced the negotiation was fated to be a minimally successful one and that they had best start minimising their expectations in advance.

Kim withdraws. In this alternative, North Korea’s Kim looks around and realises Donald Trump will not budge from that denuclearisation objective and that the various carrots being dangled in front of him are all totally dependent on the full grinding up of his precious nukes and turning them into useless molecular dust. With that as a bottom line, and with few tangible benefits in hand, in this alternative, once the first smiles were over, it would be time to pull back and reconnoitre the territory yet again, before making any more approaches.

The photo opportunity/handshake moment. Under this scenario, the two men decide they will make the best of their non-agreement on anything major and agree they would couch the whole effort in terms of building friendship and arranging some tentative, initial bits of progress and further meetings to begin the real moments of negotiations. This might even include agreement (yet again, as with the 1994 US-North Korean agreement) to establish liaison offices in each other’s capital city and begin some modest sports and cultural exchanges.

If those latter elements are part of the process, some perspective on an earlier agreement might be helpful. One year earlier, this writer had recalled his own modest share of the diplomatic flurry that had stemmed from that 1994 agreement. As I wrote at the time: “One of my tasks was to generate publications, published in Korean, that could be made available to be handed out by the staff of that semi-sorta-embassy to any Koreans in Pyongyang who would receive them. Of course, North Korean government watchers would carefully screen any recipients and probably try to seize the publications, but, regardless, the items would probably end up being read by many more people anyway, as the material seeped into the more general population. (One idea that was turned down was to obtain thousands of copies of the Lotte department store Christmas catalogue – Lotte being a major South Korean store chain – and mail them to every address that could be identified in North Korea. This would generate an unbreakable consumer demand for the products of capitalism. Although a fun idea, it was ultimately rejected as just a little too bold and too provocative.)

We selected a list of the obvious kinds of items: potted geographies and histories of the US, and discussions of American arts and literature, but also, thoughtful pamphlets on important western economic ideas and trends. We then commissioned new translations into Korean, only to discover that the North Korean version of the language simply did not contain words for dozens and dozens of standard use economic and business terms – and using the South Korean lexicon would have been devoid of meaning to would-be readers. And so, our translators had to build the required lexicon themselves.

Duly printed, pallet loads of publications were dispatched to a warehouse in South Korea to be driven overland to Pyongyang when that liaison office was to receive its tables, chairs, computers, carpets and communications gear. But the diplomatic climate over KEDO (the planned Korean Energy Development Organization) and the establishment of those liaison offices suddenly turned Arctic cold by a twist in Pyongyang thinking. KEDO never took off, the liaison offices were never opened, and those pamphlets and books are – presumably – still in their tightly wrapped pallet loads, waiting for the right moment….”

Given the current atmosphere, it might be a good idea to locate those pallet loads, dust them off, and get them ready – finally – for use in the US liaison office in Pyongyang that might actually come into being. Of course someone will have to organise two more such pamphlets: one on the on-going revolution of the internet economy that was only beginning to come into being, back then, and then one on the fourth industrial revolution, something that was just a gleam in the eye of a few visionary thinkers. Sounds useful, yes? Better than having them hack into yet another company like Sony.

The fourth alternative, a miraculous agreement on all fronts, seems the most unlikely of the four alternative outcomes, but, given the way Donald Trump seems to slaver for the love and respect of authoritarian dictators around the globe (as opposed to the usual pattern of respect and friendship with nations that share – broadly speaking – western political, social, economic and cultural values), and Kim’s expressed interest in improving the economic circumstances of his subject population, it is just possible the two men will find a way to make all of it happen.

And if Kim offered the possibility of a spot or two for American franchised fast-food restaurants – after all, such an eventuality helped herald improved relations with both Russia and China in previous years – weirder things have happened. And never ignore the possible influence of Dennis Rodman. Yes, he was the wild man of professional basketball (the player who once appeared on the court in a ballet tutu but who was also an essential part of the Chicago Bulls ascendancy, together with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen) but he just happens to know – personally – both Trump and Kim, and he is in Singapore as well and he has spoken publicly that he would like to organise sports exchanges all by himself.

We wrote all this, just hours before the beginning of the historic meeting. Now that the first encounter is done, the initial judgements are that the meeting achieved something on the order of alternative three-plus. More like more than a handshake, but less than a total revolution in any relationship between the two nations. According toThe Japan Times, reporting on the two presidents’ agreement: “US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a ‘comprehensive document’ (on) Tuesday that would ‘leave the past behind,’ in the first agreement to come out of their unprecedented summit in Singapore. Trump said the two sides had developed a special bond and would announce details of the document later, while Kim called the meeting a ‘historic encounter where we decided to leave the past behind’. ‘The world will see a major change,’ Kim said through a translator.

Asked by reporters if the agreement was the starting point for a process that would begin the denuclearisation of North Korea, Trump said that such steps would happen ‘very, very quickly”. Trump said the two had crafted a ‘comprehensive document’ and that ‘people are going to be very impressed, people are going to be very happy’. The US president also said that he would meet again and would ‘absolutely’ invite Kim to visit the White House.”

And CNN tweeted: “Photographs of the document signed by Trump and Kim indicate the leaders agreed to ‘work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula’.”

First words of the actual agreed document also pointed to North Korea’s taking steps towards denuclearisation and the US’ support for security guarantees. That latter point would probably be seen as a great gift to China if it actually led to a reduction or withdrawal of the 28,000 American military still stationed in South Korea since the end of the Korean fighting.

Looking at the full text of the agreement, it is startling how little concreteness there is in this document beyond broad smiling and the nodding of heads. The operative lines, such as they are, after some of the usual diplomatic gloss of such documents, are four operative points:

1 The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new US-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.

2 The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

3 Reaffirming the 27 April 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

4 The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

Having acknowledged that the US-DPRK summit – the first in history — was an epochal event of great significance and overcoming decades of tensions and hostilities between the two countries and for the opening of a new future, President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un commit to implement the stipulations in this joint statement fully and expeditiously. The United States and the DPRK commit to hold follow-on negotiations led by the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and a relevant high-level DPRK official, at the earliest possible date, to implement the outcomes of the US-DPRK summit.”

That’s all she wrote*.

Awkward footnotes to all the ensuing euphoria of course include just how North Korea’s neighbours – South Korea, Japan, China and Russia — will fit into this emerging relationship. Will they feel the need to get their concerns addressed appropriately, or will some of them even try to put the brakes on developments until their respective concerns are also addressed appropriately by the two new love birds?

And, of course, there will be a contortionist’s challenge for the Trump administration to figure out how to position this as something very different than the Obama administration’s deal with Iran (thoroughly traduced by Trump before he abrogated US participation in it) and the re-establishment of relations with Cuba (now minimised by the current president). Finally, it will be fascinating to see how Republicans manage to realign themselves into celebrating any deal with Kim, after years of excoriating his regime and that of his father and grandfather, regardless of the content of the agreement and despite their constant denunciations of the earlier Iran accord. DM

* American English colloquialism: that is all there is.


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