Trump-Kim Summit: Moving from threats to hugs and then towards tango

Muhammad Zamir | Wednesday, 13 June 2018

The intricate geo-strategic process related to the convening of the historic Summit between North Korea and the United States, supported by South Korea, on June 12, has been like a zebra crossing - sometimes you see it and sometimes you do not. It has been the world's biggest geo-political drama in the recent past.
After careful consideration by both parties it was held in the Capella hotel which is located on the island resort of Sentosa (which is Malay for "peace and tranquillity) off Singapore. Both North Korean and United States officials in Singapore needed to get sign-off on almost every detail with their superiors in Pyongyang and Washington, leading to one- or two-day intervals before they could reach an agreement on even minor logistical details. US officials, led by Joe Hagin, the deputy White House chief of staff for operations, negotiated with a North Korean delegation over the last few days to determine the location and time for the summit. Security was the chief concern for both parties. Nevertheless, despite all the difficulties and challenges, it has taken place and the world will now wait and watch how factors evolve in the political and strategic arenas after the much-awaited Joint Declaration between the two Parties.
Ben Westcott of CNN has noted that just five months ago, North Korea was isolated, heavily-sanctioned and with even fewer diplomatic friends. This situation developed following the assassination of Kim Jong-Un's exiled older half-brother Kim Jong Nam in 2017. Since the evolving dynamics has been fast.
It may be noted here that members of the Kim family have met with ex- US Presidents before. Former President Jimmy Carter met with Kim Il Sung, Kim's grandfather, in 1994, while former President Bill Clinton met Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, after he left office in 2009. Clinton came close to meeting with Kim Jong Il while still in office in 2000. But he ultimately decided to turn down an invitation to meet with North Korea's then-leader, after determining that Kim couldn't be trusted. Instead, Clinton sent his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in his place.
As it stands now, North Korean leader has assumed a new popular role within the international arena. After years in isolation, he has emerged as a powerful player. Leaders from China, Russia, Syria, South Korea and the US have all met or are due to meet Mr Kim before the end of this year. After Singapore, it will create its own shadow.
This has led Jean Lee, a former Associated Press bureau chief in Pyongyang, to remark that "We are witnessing the making of 'Kim Jong-un, international statesman. This is such a different international debut than we saw in 2010, when Kim Jong-un stepped forward as the unknown, baby-faced heir-apparent. Now, with a proven intercontinental ballistic missile under his belt, Kim is stepping out as the leader of a country that sees itself as a nuclear power on par with the world's other nuclear powers, including the United States." Other analysts have mentioned that this was probably the kind of prize Kim was looking for when when he accelerated his missile testing programme in 2017. Ken Gause of CNN observed that "Kim Jong-un most likely came to the conclusion that the only way to ensure success on the diplomatic front was to escalate to de-escalate. North Korea would have to force its way to the negotiating table from a position of strength."
However, most strategists believe that this success on the part of Kim Jong-un meeting President Trump would not have taken place without the efforts of the liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in who campaigned with the promise to engage with North Korea. This allowed him to establish a relationship with his neighbour. Chinese President Xi Jinping's persuasion and careful political planning on the part of Kim Jong-un also helped.
According to most analysts, however, this new diplomatic strategy did not just arise from a position of strength, but also out of necessity. This ball game has emerged because of Kim's focus on the deteriorating status of the North Korean economy. He realised that time had come to forge alliances and rebuild old friendships. He correctly focused on China, North Korea's main trading partner. Pyongyang understood that President Xi Jinping had to be won over. Two visits to China came in under two months - first to Beijing and then to Dalian in early May. Each visit was made just days before Mr Kim met the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. This was a cunning strategic move which may have allowed him to play one off against the other. This was also done because Kim believed that China was in favour of a slower approach to denuclearisation and would prefer sanctions to be lifted to keep North Korea's economy stable.
The other careful manoeuvre within the diplomatic outreach of North Korea was to also engage with Russia. Kim Jong-un decided now was the time to welcome the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Pyongyang. This happened while his emissary former North Korean spy chief Kim Yong-chol was on his way to the United States to have a meeting with US President Trump and US Secretary of State Pompeo. Russia's Lavrov carefully hinted at Moscow's dissatisfaction with the hasty developments taking place with North Korea but has also indicated that it is ready to contribute to these efforts. He also invited Kim to Russia for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In this context it would be appropriate to hope that the Summit deliberations have been able to address the anxiety of Japan, a key third party. Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, made it a point to visit Washington a few days before the Summit to remind Trump that he should not overlook Japan's security interests by only thinking of the North Korea's Hwasong-15 missile that can reach the US mainland. Abe does not want Trump to strike a compromise that would leave Japan exposed to shorter range Hwasong-12 missiles. He has also stressed correctly that the US should not relieve pressure on North Korea before that country takes credible concrete steps regarding complete, verifiable (pertaining to all its nuclear sites and fissile material) and irreversible de-nuclearisation measures (CVID).
Eager for a diplomatic victory, the Trump Administration has pushed on with the historic meeting this time. It will also create for Pyongyang a new veneer of respectability. Jim Hoare, British academic and historian specialising in Korean and Chinese studies, has predicted that after June 12, the Summit will establish acceptance that North Korea is there, that it is a State and that its leadership is part of the world leadership. It will also ensure safety for the present regime. There is also another significant aspect. After this Summit, North Korea will technically not continue to be at war with both South Korea and the United States. This will then facilitate a possible peace treaty with the South, and usher in benefits that might not be opposed by Washington.
This Summit has given Kim Jong-un the necessary street credibility for being able to say that North Korea is open for business. In just six months he has gone from complete international isolation to being one of two leaders at the centre of one the world's biggest geo-political dramas. Kim Jong-un has changed the rules of the game. Last year his nuclear arsenal was a liability, now he has turned them into a diplomatic tool and political leverage.
Understandably, all the details of the Summit have not been revealed. Nevertheless, as speculated earlier by Professor Lee Sung-yoon of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, there appears to have been discussion on possible denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. Kim, it is understood, also sought the weakening of sanctions and easing the concept of US military pre-emption.
Singapore has already taken necessary action to mint commemorative medallions to mark the historic meeting. Prime Minister Lee deserves thanks for this initiative. The medallions will depict an "affirmative handshake" between Trump and Kim. At the back will be national flowers of both countries -roses for the United States and magnolias for North Korea - and a dove with the words "world peace". The world will look forward to what emerges subsequently after this primary constructive engagement.
United States and the Koreas still do not have a formal Peace Treaty concluding the Korean War of 1951-53. This needs to be addressed. It will then enable the stakeholders to move forward within the diplomatic paradigm. It needs to be a step-by-step process within a parameter of flexibility. Consequently, all concerned, as President Putin has noted, "need to refrain from dangerous steps".
It is understood that different Working Groups will be set up by the two Parties to facilitate resolution of the challenges. This is important for the next step - Chairman Kim going to Washington. In any case there will be careful monitoring of the evolving circumstances. This will then determine the question of revision of sanctions and the prospect of foreign investment in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Questions will remain about the prospect of substantive achievements but the fact that the Summit has been held has been a first step towards a possible follow-up Summit in the White House. Both parties have stressed on putting the past behind them and moving forward.
If all fails, it will be back to brinkmanship and the Korean Peninsula will continue to be in a quagmire.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.