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June 21, 2018

The Trump-Kim rendezvous


June 21, 2018

Who says we are not living in interesting times? If you still doubt this assertion, a look at what transpired in Singapore on June 12 is enough to convince you of the veracity of the statement. From trading allegations to indulging in nuclear brinkmanship came a passionate handshake, exchange of comforting words and personal praises and high-sounding claims of resetting the relationship.

The historic summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un was the stuff of legends. Not because it resulted in any major breakthrough but because of the optics and the message it sent across for all the right and wrong reasons.

Since the idea of the meeting was mooted by Pyongyang, no one had imagined the meeting would achieve what decades of diplomacy, intimidation and sanctions could not. Both sides sought to use the momentous occasion to suit their interests. Washington was interested in finding a permanent solution to the dreaded nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, while Pyongyang looked forward to reducing the ill-effects of the economic sanctions and breaking its international isolation.

What is the concrete outcome of the summit? The jury is out and the positions being taken vary depending upon the ideological orientation of the commentators. The four-point declaration signed by the leaders of the US and North Korea is too generic and broad to commit to anything more concrete and quantifiable. Against Chairman Kim’s ‘firm and unwavering commitment of completely denuclearising the Korean Peninsula’, President Trump has ordered the halting of the military games – a reference to the joint military exercises conducted by the US and South Korean armies – much to the surprise of Seoul. Trump called the exercises ‘provocative’ and ‘inappropriate,’ thereby endorsing the position taken by North Korea vis-a-vis the exercises.

The immediate outcome of the meeting is that the danger of a nuclear war breaking out in the Korean Peninsula, so real until a few months ago, is off the table – at least for the time being. Looking at the bigger picture, this appears to be an epic achievement in itself, though the devil, as they say, lies in the details – vexed, complicated and multi-layered as they are in case of the troubled relationship between the two countries.

Real work will get underway after President Trump’s close aides, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and those at the helm of his national security team sit down with their North Korean counterparts to walk the talk in an attempt to hammer a deal that is acceptable to both Washington and Pyongyang.

At the marathon press conference that he addressed after the meeting with Kim, Trump skilfully avoided responding to the likely scenarios in case the latest efforts at peace-building failed. He even hinted at having a conversation with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts to update them on what transpired between him and Kim Jong-un. Trump’s intention to win the buy-in of neighbouring countries with legitimate stakes in the region demonstrates the willingness to evolve a regional approach to end the Korean conflict.

Critics of the summit have identified a dichotomy in the approach employed by the US leader while dealing with North Korea and Iran. They say that what North Korea’s leader has committed to do does not represent anything new or concrete, it is something that has been agreed to in the discussions the diplomats and second-tier leaders of both the countries have had during the past two decades. They are of the view that the US president has invested his political capital in a deal that is not even in the making and the broad contours of which have yet to be worked out mutually.

However, in case of the Iran nuclear deal, which was so painstakingly put together by the Obama administration with the help of the permanent-five plus EU, and which President Trump summarily scrapped, a set of actions aimed at cross-checking, verifying and monitoring the nature of nuclear activities was incorporated followed by the announcement of punitive measures to be adopted in case violations were verified.

Except for the US, all parties to the historic Iran nuclear deal, including the nuclear watchdog IAEA, affirmed that Iran was complying with its obligations. Trump still went ahead with his plan to walk out of the deal . Contrarily, he has gone all out in the case of North Korea. Trump’s performance vis-a-vis the North Korean deal, if any is clinched in due course of time, will be judged against the standards he set for himself when he undid the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump’s famous tweet about knowing within a second whether Kim was a serious peace-builder or not can also be seen in the context of his trademark style that knows no diplomatic restraint. What the summit actually did is grant legitimacy to the Kim regime. In a battle of optics, he scored a much needed victory, something his father and grandfather could not accomplish. Trump treated him as an equal. The number of delegates who joined both leaders at the delegation-level talks was equal, as was the number of flags that were displayed equally behind them as they shook hands in front of the cameras.

It has been pointed out that the Singapore summit has worked out a roadmap for dictators by setting new rules of the game: you acquire the nuclear power that you can brandish as your strength and then bring your adversary down to the table by resorting to brinkmanship.

A more charitable view of the meeting is that in the most intricate relationship where all else failed, President Trump played a masterstroke to break the deadlock and get the process going. At best, the summit has given both Trump and Kim a rare window of opportunity within which to finalise and hone their strategy of denuclearisation. The process is no doubt thorny and strewn with various potential pitfalls which can prove to be a deal-breaker at the throw of a hat. But this is where the sincerity of President Trump and Chairman Kim will be tested in due course of time.

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