Trump-Kim summit was a high-stakes gamble
There is relief both in the United States and Europe that the world has pulled back from the precipice
The summit meeting between the US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader, Chairman Kim Jong Un was historic in a sense that it was the first ever meeting between a sitting US President and a leader of North Korea.
North Korea has for long sought direct dialogue with the United States but successive US Presidents have ruled out a summit meeting. For Trump, beleaguered at home and criticised for his maladroit handling of allies , including at the just concluded G-7 meeting, the summit offered an opportunity to positively showcase his leadership. War was not an option given the advances in North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes, the countervailing power of China, and the concerns of South Korea and Japan that their countries could become North Korean targets in the event of any conflict. For Kim, the summit conferred legitimacy on the world stage. After years of international isolation and sanctions, he was meeting as an equal with the leader of the world’s most powerful country, and one which had been at the forefront of efforts to isolate his country. That too without a priori sacrificing the advances made by North Korea in developing nuclear weapons and missiles, including a ballistic missile with intercontinental reach.
To create a favourable environment, Kim had announced a suspension of nuclear and missile tests, destroyed a nuclear test site and released a few American prisoners. In his earlier summit with South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, Kim had reaffirmed commitment to denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and to achieving peace in the Korean Peninsula.
The summit was high on photo-op and personal gestures but thin on outcome.The joint statement is couched in generalities. Both leaders committed to establish new US-North Korea relations and join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea committed to work towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
It is unclear if both the US and North Korea are on the same page when they talk of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. Does this refer only to the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programme or would it also encompass the extended nuclear deterrence that the US provides to South Korea which was originally intended as an umbrella against China’s nuclear weapons? China’s objective would be to push for the broadest definition, possibly including the US ballistic missile defence systems, stationed in South Korea. If the US accepts such a broad definition, it would be another signal that it is diluting its role in Asia having already withdrawn from the Trans Pacific Partnership. There is no mention of North Korea’s missile programme in the joint statement.
In a subsequent press conference, Trump said that he was stopping US- South Korea joint military exercises which he characterised as “provocative” and “expensive”. He also said that he would like to see US troops leave South Korea.These announcements seem to have blindsided both his South Korean allies and even his own military which said that it had received no new guidance. He also said that North Korea had agreed to destroy a missile engine test site and that sanctions against North Korea would continue. There was no formalisation of the suspension of nuclear and missile tests announced by North Korea. Instead an informal freeze for freeze proposal, long propagated by Russia (suspension of US/ South Korea war games in return for suspension of North Korean nuclear and missile tests) has been put in place.
Paradoxically, President Trump has shown a flexible, and even somewhat loose, approach in negotiating with North Korea on the nuclear issue while at the same time pulling out of the Nuclear agreement with Iran which commits Iran to very specific actions that even the International Atomic Energy Agency has certified that Iran has adhered to. This makes the US actions against Iran appear inconsistent and illogical. While, there is relief both in the US and Europe that the world has pulled back from a precipice, there is also considerable scepticism that Trump’s high stakes diplomatic gamble will achieve the twin objectives of an “irreversible and verifiable” dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile programmes and a stable and lasting peace in the Korean Peninsula. If, against all odds, the talks do succeed, history would truly have been made.
FOR KIM, THE SUMMIT CONFERRED LEGITIMACY ON THE WORLD STAGE. AFTER YEARS OF INTERNATIONAL ISOLATION AND SANCTIONS, HE WAS MEETING AS AN EQUAL WITH THE LEADER OF THE MOST POWERFUL COUNTRY.