The good, bad from the sum­mit

The Phnom Penh Post - - OPINION -

FIRST, the good news. The fact that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump held this meet­ing with Kim Jong-un is a pos­i­tive thing, in the sense that it means nuclear war is less likely in the short term.

Many ex­perts were deeply alarmed ear­lier this year when Trump rage-tweeted that his “Nuclear But­ton” is “much big­ger & more pow­er­ful” than Kim’s. In that con­text, the sum­mit has to be greeted with hope and re­lief.

The an­nounce­ment that came out of the sum­mit was vague. While Trump an­nounced that Kim had “reaf­firmed” his com­mit­ment to de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion, The Washington Post adds this im­por­tant caveat: “Trump pro­vided few specifics about what steps Kim would take to back up his prom­ise . . . and how the United States would ver­ify that North Korea was keep­ing its pledge . . . say­ing that would be worked out in fu­ture talks.”

The deal the two men agreed to is sim­i­lar to pre­vi­ous agree­ments in its vague­ness, and those were fol­lowed by a North Korea buildup. And Kim ar­guably got a lot more than the United States did – an end to US war games and a boost in le­git­i­macy – though Trump prob­a­bly sees this as a boost to his own stand­ing, which is all he seems to care about.

But as long as they are talk­ing, war is less likely. “Any talks, while on­go­ing, sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce the risk of a nuclear war that could kill mil­lions,” says Max Fisher of The New York Times. “An empty Trump-Kim state­ment . . . is a nor­mal, low-pres­sure way to keep that process go­ing.”

But here’s a fairly big worry: Trump ap­pears ea­ger to pocket what­ever he can call a vic­tory, which raises the pos­si­bil­ity that he won’t in­sist on a ro­bust veri- fi­ca­tion process. In an in­ter­view with ABC News’s Ge­orge Stephanopou­los, Trump said Kim would be mak­ing specific de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion an­nounce­ments very quickly:

“He’s de-nuk­ing, I mean he’s de-nuk­ing the whole place. It’s go­ing to start very quickly. I think he’s go­ing to start now. They’ll be an­nounc­ing things over the next few days talk­ing about other mis­sile sites be­cause they were, as you know, they were send­ing out a lot of mis­siles . . . they’re go­ing to be get­ting rid of sites.”

Daryl Kim­ball, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Arms Con­trol As­so­ci­a­tion, told me that this dec­la­ra­tion pro­vides a way to judge whether this process is bear­ing fruit. “The real mea­sure of suc­cess in this en­tire process is whether there is or is not steady progress to­wards the goal of de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion,” Kim­ball said. “If we don’t see steady progress and demon­stra­ble concrete steps, then we know the prom­ises are not be­ing ful­filled.”

“North Korea has dozens of ma­jor nuclear and mis­sile sites – hun­dreds of build­ings,” Kim­ball said. “They’ve got 10 to 60 nuclear de­vices. They have a nuclear test­ing site. They have pro­duc­tion re­ac­tors. It will take a con­sid­er­able amount of time, even with the best of co­op­er­a­tion, to dis­able, dis­man­tle and dis­as­sem­ble that in­fra­struc­ture. It will re­quire un­prece­dented mon­i­tor­ing by in­ter­na­tional in­spec­tors to con­firm it’s hap­pened.”

Kim­ball said that real progress will re­quire “at some point soon a full and com­plete dec­la­ra­tion by North Korea of its nuclear pro­gram”, as well as “agree­ment with North Korea about who will ver­ify the ac­cu­racy and com­plete­ness of the dec­la­ra­tion, and how”. Progress, Kim­ball said, should be mon­i­tored by out­side or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency, or pos­si­bly “a multi­na­tional team au­tho­rised by the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil com­pris­ing ex­perts from China, Rus­sia and the US”.

In the in­ter­view with Stephanopou­los, Trump noted of Kim that “his coun­try does love him. His peo­ple, you see the fer­vour. They have a great fer­vour.” This was an ap­palling thing to say, given North Korea’s hor­rific hu­man rights record, which in­cludes a reign of fear en­forced by a po­lice state and the im­pris­on­ment with­out trial of enor­mous num­bers of po­lit­i­cal prisoners un­der ter­ri­ble con­di­tions. But this pro­vides an im­por­tant glimpse into Trump’s mind­set here, as the ex­change that came just af­ter shows:

“STEPHANOPOU­LOS: You say his peo­ple love him. Just a few months ago you ac­cused him of starv­ing his peo­ple. And lis­ten, here’s the rub. Kim is a bru­tal dic­ta­tor. He runs a po­lice state, forced star­va­tion, labour camps. He’s as­sas­si­nated mem­bers of his own fam­ily. How do you trust a killer like that?

“TRUMP: Ge­orge, I’m given what I’m given, OK? I mean, this is what we have, and this is where we are, and I can only tell you from my ex­pe­ri­ence, and I met him, I’ve spo­ken with him, and I’ve met him . . . he wants to do the right thing.”

I’ve spo­ken with him, and I’ve met him. Trump ap­pears to have bot­tom­less faith in his in­stinc­tual abil­ity to size up the per­son on the other side of the deal­mak­ing ta­ble, and he’s operating from that as­sump­tion here as well, as if this is an or­di­nary real es­tate deal.

This week, Politico’s Michael Kruse took a care­ful look at Trump’s his­tory and found that in many ven­tures over the years, what has most marked Trump’s at­ti­tude is a kind of blithe lack of con­cern about their con­se­quences be­yond how they affect him. “What has made him fear­less is what has made him care­less,” Kruse con­cluded. “Be­cause he’s never had to pay a last­ing price for his mis­takes.” This has left Trump with un­shak­able con­fi­dence that he can “spin” any­thing, re­gard­less of those con­se­quences, “into a win”.

The big worry now is that Trump will be so ea­ger to pocket signs of progress – vic­to­ries he can “spin into a win” for him­self – that he won’t in­sist on rig­or­ous ver­i­fi­ca­tion to en­sure the process is pro­duc­ing re­sults. “It’s en­cour­ag­ing that Trump and Kim seem to have a good per­sonal rap­port,” Kim­ball told me. “But this is not a real es­tate deal. We can’t just go on whether

Trump feels that Kim wants to de­liver.”

KCNA VIA KNS/AFP

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un shakes hands with US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump dur­ing the US-North Korea sum­mit, at the Capella Ho­tel on Sen­tosa is­land in Sin­ga­pore, on Tues­day.

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