“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury, like the world has never seen.”, said Donald Trump in August 2017, alarming the humanity of the impending nuclear catastrophe. Who knew that June 2018, will bring the rumors of Trump and Kim as the suitable boys for Nobel Prize for bringing peace-regime in the Korean peninsula. Well, with Trump and his dear friend the “little rocket man”, one should get used to rough rides in an otherwise bland and refined world of diplomacy.
Much has been written about the outcomes of the Trump-Kim Singapore summit, though mostly in criticism. Daniel R Russel called it an installment of “diplotainment” with Kim getting the most of it and Trump receiving nothing except vague and open-ended promises of denuclearization. However, I would rather disagree. If it was not a historic breakthrough, then it cannot even be dumped as a historic blunder.
To begin with, I must state that partly the criticism comes from an inadequate understanding of Trump’s foreign policy whose hallmark is unpredictability. Besides the unpredictability, there are biases and preoccupations amongst the intellectual community against Trump that act as hurdles in understanding Trump’s style of diplomacy that usually defies the confines of conventional, slow-paced and highly methodical diplomatic practices and often startles you with its crude, rough and unpredictable nature.
In war, there are winners and losers whereas in diplomacy there are compromises and imperfect win-win solutions. Therefore, the Singapore summit needs to be analyzed in terms of the relative gains of the different parties. The oriental metaphysics believes that reality is always more profound than what appears on the surface. If the truth is more than what meets the eye, then one cannot rule out the possibility of China being the real player behind the strategic gymnastics of North Korea. Moreover, the outcomes are, indeed, entirely favourable to China. China gets its dual-track freeze, i.e. denuclearisation of North Korea and suspension of the US-South Korea military drills. Further, Trump’s categorisation of the military exercises as ‘provocative’ and ‘expensive’ gives strong hopes to China of the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea. With this China also hopes to achieve its most fervently held fantasy of weakening the American alliances with Japan and South Korea. Moreover, it hardly requires any reasoning to argue that weakening of American alliances will be detrimental to its long-term interests in the South China Sea.
Kim undoubtedly comes out as a winner. The summit provided an equal footing to Kim with the US president, something that his father and grandfather could not achieve. Further, in a way, it legitimised the country’s status as nuclear power and also ended North Korea’s pariah status. Also, North Korea also got rid of its persistent headache, i.e. US-South Korea war games. Moreover, all this happened in return of some vague promise of denuclearisation.
North Korea’s promise of “complete denuclearisation” raises hope and despair at once. It raises hopes and optimism because denuclearisation is what everyone wanted and if that happens, it holds the gateway to the real peace regime in the peninsula. It also raises promises for progress on the other fronts like terrorism, human rights, chemical and biological weapons and the general living conditions of human life in North Korea. However, at the same time, as an idea, it looks ephemeral and dreamy, given the failure of US to achieve the goal of verifiable, irreversible and absolute denuclearisation of North Korea over the last 25 years. With every round of talk in the past, be it 1992, 1994 or six-party talks of 2005, North Korea has successfully manipulated negotiations as the hawkish NSA Bolton writes, that proliferators like the North Koreans “exploit negotiations to gain the most precious asset: time to resolve the complex scientific and technological hurdles to making deliverable nuclear weapons.” Hence, the question arises, when North Korea has already developed nuclear warheads and the capability to launch them to US mainland, both of which it perceives as the only guarantee for regime survival, why would it suddenly agree for dismantling its entire nuclear weapons capability. Further, North Korea’s motives, incentives or even compulsions behind complete denuclearisation are even more difficult to comprehend when it gets known that the pariah state has already borne the brunt of the most coercive sanctions over the last two or three decades.
Hence, in the first place, there needs to be clarity about the real meanings of “complete denuclearisation”, the phrase used in the signed statement, as there is no mention of Mike Pompey’s VFID(Verifiable, Irreversible Denucleurisation) in the signed statement. For now, even if it is assumed that VFID and North Korea’s complete denuclearisation mean and imply the same outcomes, then also its success depends on the verification. Moreover, that requires North Korea to declare its entire nuclear inventory and expose them to the credible inspections regime of the UN. An honest appraisal leads one to conclude that the idea of denuclearisation mentioned above is, in fact, a bit far-fetched and unreal.
However, there is an array of more realistic outcomes that can be assured from the Singapore summit. The Singapore summit can be extremely useful in vigorously checking the proliferation activities of North Korea. It is well-known that North Korea’s proliferation racket runs from Pakistan to the Middle East encompassing rogue regimes like that of Iran and Assad in its fold, leaving many loose ends in the network. An immediate and complete curb on this proliferation network is a must lest we want to allow some dirty bombs to fall the way of ISIS and Al Qaida.
Secondly, I believe that even little-steps with good intentions and mutual concern in denuclearisation will generate goodwill that may open the gates of positive developments in the field of other problem-areas like North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons, human rights issues, general living conditions of the common-folk. Further, these initiatives will bring some genuine peace in the peninsula in due course of time.
As regards the US, the general feeling among the diplomatic community is that the US did not get even an inch in return for frontloading several miles. The lack of any concrete promises and timeline for denuclearisation lends substance to the feeling mentioned above. And, indeed, it can’t be denied. Whether the US lost or won, will be determined by verifiable denuclearization in the near and distant future. However, genuine progress in the other problem-areas mentioned above in the article will also be a robust measure of the success of the Trump-Kim meeting, even if one rules out the possibility of absolute and complete denuclearization. Also, as far as the loses are concerned, it seems that the rhetorical has been of blowing them out of proportions. US-South Korean war games can always be restarted in the event of non-compliance by North Korea, though the accomodationist and liberal camp in South Korea make it slightly difficult. Further, American troops are not returning home anytime soon. In fact, the geopolitical logic in the light of aggressive and expansionist Chinese activities in the region will dictate a stronger American presence in the area, in the future.
Finally, we all know that war is not an option even if we all hate Trump and Kim. The coercive sanctions diplomacy has outlived its utility. If that is to continue, then Kim in all likelihood is expected to buy more time, if he still has any scientific and technical hurdles left to overcome in building a robust nuclear capability. However, he already seems to have crossed that stage. Now, if with financial aid, deft diplomacy and well-meaning intentions, North Korea can be accommodated in the world order, then it must be done. It must be done because there is no other alternative to bring peace to the region and send the cool breeze of relief to the ordinary citizens of North Korea.