Four eyes over Korea


  • Opinion
  • Sunday, 11 Mar 2018

Stunning development: Trump’s agreement to a historic first meeting with Kim amid their high-stakes nuclear standoff has sent everyone into a tizzy. — AFP

AS seems most appropriate, an extraordinary event arrived in an unusual fashion.

Finally, the North Korean leader and the US president agreed to a first-ever four-eyed summit. But neither US nor North Korean officials issued the first formal announcement about it.

It came through South Korea’s national security adviser Chung Eui-yong at the White House. His statement was confirmed by a tweet from President Donald Trump.

North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un had invited Trump to a meeting on the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, not just a freeze on its nuclear weapons programme. Kim also offered to suspend nuclear weapons and missile testing for that period.

Trump’s tweet accepting the invitation appreciated all these offers. He added that US plans were already underway for a summit, probably in May.

Most observers around the world, not least US officials, were stunned.

Only days before, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States was “a long way from negotiations”. He was even uncertain about the possibility of meeting some “representatives of North Korea”.

The news drew a round of encouraging statements from various governments or “the usual suspects”. Several of these formed the stalled six-party talks on denuclearising the Korean peninsula.

Individual countries are already claiming credit for this latest breakthrough. Since the multilateral talks had failed to even conti­nue, particular countries now want the credit for the summit.

North Korea no doubt wants credit, particularly since Kim issued the invitation to Trump. Kim needs the domestic political capital from securing an unprecedented summit with a sitting US president.

The United States, or rather Trump himself, would also want credit. After all, he accepted the invitation with little to no hesitation.

Some US analysts credit Trump further for his “America first” rhetoric, which is said to push South Korea to normalise relations with the North, in turn resulting in the summit.

South Korea is also claiming credit for initiating the whole thing. Notably, South Korean officials had made the official announcement after a meeting with the US government.

Some in China also want credit for the summit proposal. In recent months, China launched its toughest-yet sanctions on ally North Korea, arguably softening its position.

Expectedly, the host venue for the summit would also claim credit for “staging” the historic occasion. That venue has yet to be announced.

However, even as official endorsements for the summit are passed round, less official criticisms and disdain are also being expressed.

Some detractors in the United States have already begun to dismiss the planned summit as just “a photo opportunity for Trump”.

Others warn that it would be no more than a trick by Kim “to buy time” for his nuclear weapons ambition, or else give him “face” or credit he does not deserve.

Still others in the West would diminish the significance of such a first-ever summit as somehow being “done before” and something that “would not end well”.

Former US presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, after retiring from office, met Kim’s father and grandfather respectively while they were in turns supreme leader.

Trump and Kim’s summit will be the first between two sitting leaders of their mutually estranged countries. Add to this their common mercurial temperaments and the chemistry is tailored for prime time watching.

Abroad, however, not everything is as it seems. That would be par for the course for such an occasion.

Under the blanket of glad noises, there are covert opponents of a successful summit. As usual, self-interests are at play.

Hardliners in North Korea are fearful of a “softening” of the regime since they and their attitude risk being outed. Some had invested heavily in the prevailing hardline orthodoxy.

China is ever wary of North Korea’s possible disappearance from the scene, since Pyongyang acts as a convenient buffer to US allies Japan and South Korea. Anything that brings US strategic assets right up to China’s border is unwelcome.

Japan is not altogether sold on complete normalisation on the Korean peninsula either. That may diminish its status and priority as a US ally, while a reunified Korea may make Japan even less competitive as a global economy.

Hardliners in the United States are also not to be outdone by their North Korean counterparts. Cold War traditionalists have found it hard to reconcile with Russia, so the same would apply with North Korea.

Not least, arms dealers everywhere would be sad to see any prospect of peace breaking out on the peninsula. Arms build-ups in North-East Asia have been most profitable.

Traditionalists in virtually every corner are uncomfortable with such head-turning, jaw-dropping and potentially game-changing events.

When senator Barack Obama was interviewed as a prospective presidential nominee, conservatives including Hillary Clinton roasted him for saying he would be ready as president to talk with Iran’s leaders. Nonetheless, as president he succeeded in negotiating the release of US nationals held in Iran.

To optimists who see positive progress in the summit, the question is whether it would be successful. That depends on who is being asked and what is meant by “success”.

Officially, nobody involved would admit to failure. Much to the contrary, they would want to claim success along with the credit for making it possible.

Kim wants it to succeed because he wants to be seen as successful himself, most of all by North Koreans. Getting the US president of the day to sit down with him to talk would be a major achievement in itself.

Trump also wants the summit to succeed for much the same reason. For him, talking directly to North Korea’s supreme leader is also an achievement because none of his predecessors had done it while in office.

Above all, Trump is proud of his reputation as a dealmaker. This summit may be seen as the start of his biggest test on that score, while also buying political credit at home.

South Koreans want the summit to succeed for the kudos their country would earn. Besides, success could also eventually see a reunified country at last.

What are the chances of the summit succeeding in terms of substantive changes introduced on the Korean peninsula? That would depend on the terms each party brings to the table.

The United States primarily wants full denuclearisation. This will have to be internationally verifiable, even though it may take time in a phased reduction to zero.

Beyond the summit itself, North Korea wants the withdrawal of US forces from Korea, an end to the US alliance and a guarantee of non-aggression. These may take more time.

Since the summit may also fail, what would failure look like? Again, that depends on who is being asked since it would essentially mean failing to live up to one’s expectations.

For now at least, it is likely to succeed in some limited ways – a lowering of tension on the peninsula, if only for a period, and more consideration by all players of the possibilities.

Meanwhile, Trump’s team may want to get the top-ranked Cleveland Cavaliers or the Harlem Globetrotters on board his entourage for a basketball-mad Kim.

Trump may also want to tip Dennis Rodman, Kim’s “best American friend”, as a prospective ambassador should things work out.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

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