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In a thriller, Kim and Trump create history

Sceptics would aver that Kim managed to sell Trump a lemon, but that may be somewhat uncharitable. Trump was bold enough to accept a realistic arrangement.

analysis Updated: Jun 12, 2018 19:34 IST
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (R) walks with US President Donald Trump (L) during a break in talks at their historic US-North Korea summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018. (AFP)

History was crafted in Singapore on June 12 with the first ever US-North Korea (DPRK) summit. Defying all odds, Chairman Kim Jong-un and President Trump, met each other warmly and ended up signing a short joint statement, committing ‘to establish new US-DPRK relations’.

The summit proves the adage that opposites attract . No two protagonists could have been more mismatched. One was the leader of the free world, the other that of an isolated hermit kingdom. One represented the world’s oldest democracy and the most powerful nation, the other a brutal dictatorship and a heavily-sanctioned impoverished state. One an impulsive dealmaker and the other a master strategist. It took such disparate personalities to pull off a feat that had eluded their predecessors for half a century.

The on again, off again encounter was unimaginable a mere six months ago. All through 2017, Trump heaped insults at Kim (which were duly reciprocated) and threatened to destroy DPRK. Shrugging off threats and ever-tightening sanctions Pyongyang raced to upgrade its WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) arsenal. And then out of the blue on January 1, Kim extended the olive branch of peace, dialogue and disarmament, in return for normalisation of ties with Seoul and Washington. The events that have unfolded since read like an edge-of-the-seat thriller.

Two inter-Korean summits (only the 3rd and 4th since 1953) have been held in April and May. The sides pledged to conclude a peace treaty, denuclearise the Korean Peninsula and commence all-round cooperation. Two meetings between President Xi Jinping and Chairman Kim took place in March and May ( the first time since 2011). In a matter of 24 weeks, Kim was transformed from a ‘little rocket-man’ to a ‘statesman’.

Kim and Trump had their own compulsions to offer and agree respectively, to a face-to-face summit. Having developed a nuclear deterrent to ensure regime safety, Kim wanted to shed global isolation and embrace economic development. Trump, embroiled in numerous controversies and having managed to offend friends and foes alike, was impatient to score a major success. But there was the proverbial fly in the ointment.

The US demanded that DPRK commits upfront to CVID (Complete Verifiable and Irreversible Disarmament) before sanctions were eased and economic assistance resumed. Trump thundered that it was only a one-shot deal. Expectedly that was (and is) anathema to Pyongyang, which sees its WMD arsenal as insurance against a regime change. Kim emphasised the need to build mutual trust and for incremental and reciprocal steps by both sides. American hawks like National Security Advisor John Bolton, virtually threatened a Libya-like fate for DPRK if it refused to disarm, but the latter stuck to its guns.

Trump even called off the summit on May 24, and yet in the face of a measured North Korean response that it was willing to talk to the US “at any time in any form”, beat a hasty retreat in 36 hours. He was forced to concede, “I think it’ll be a process…. I never said it goes in one meeting. But the relationships are building, and that’s a very positive thing.”

While Kim’s deft and nimble diplomacy won the day, credit also goes to South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Secretary of State (former CIA head) Mike Pompeo. Pompeo was Washington’s principal channel of communication with Pyongyang and had paved the way for the summit. Sober, suave and a life-long pacifist, Moon had always favoured dialogue and engagement with DPRK. His meetings with Kim, helped set the tone and cleared the air for the Singapore engagement. For once China was forced to play second fiddle and Japan was relegated to the sidelines.

The very fact that Trump abandoned the G-7 summit in haste and winged his way to Singapore a day-and-a-half in advance, signified that the stakes for him were high and that failure was not an option.

The two leaders signed an aspirational document that was vague on details. Trump ‘committed to provide security guarantees to DPRK’ and Kim ‘reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula’. The sides agreed to many more meetings and a possible Washington-summit in the future. In a surprise move, Trump also agreed to abandon “provocative and expensive” joint military exercises with South Korea, a key DPRK demand.

Sceptics would aver that Kim managed to sell Trump a lemon, but that may be somewhat uncharitable. Trump was bold enough to accept a realistic arrangement. Whether or not it will hold, only time will tell. The portends, however, look positive!

Ambassador Vishnu Prakash, a former diplomat is now a foreign affairs analyst

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 12, 2018 19:33 IST