Will they walk the talk?

Trump and Kim

In this picture taken on June 12, 2018 and released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on June 13, 2018, US President Donald Trump (R) and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) walk to attend their historic US-North Korea summit,

Two unconventional and unpredictable leaders have taken a gamble and the rest of the world is now waiting to see if that gamble will finally pay off. American President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are each one of a kind — one revels in being provocative while the other has challenged the world’s mightiest powers with impunity. So, when they decided to meet in person, it was bound to be big news.

Though the pomp and historic imagery of last week’s meeting seems to have overshadowed the lack of a substantive agreement, President Trump has already declared that the North Korean regime no longer poses a nuclear threat following his Singapore summit
with Kim.

Just a year ago, the two nations seemed to be on the brink of a major conflict. After US intelligence assessed last year that North Korea has produced a miniaturised nuclear warhead, Trump issued an ultimatum to North Korea, warning Pyongyang not to make any more threats against the United States or they would “face fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

North Korea responded with a statement saying it was “examining the operational plan” to strike areas around the US territory of Guam in the Pacific, including the Andersen Air Force base and warned the US that a “pre-emptive strike is no longer the monopoly of the US.”

But in his January 2018 New Year speech, while Kim underlined that the entire US was within range of North Korean missiles, he offered an olive branch to South Korea, suggesting that he was “open to dialogue.” South Korea then moved swiftly, with the leaders of the two Koreas meeting in April to find a way to end the Korean War and South Korea inviting Pyongyang to join the Winter Olympics. Pyongyang also ceased nuclear and missile testing, freed US detainees and even destroyed its nuclear research site.

Trump created history by agreeing to meet Kim, but even a few days before the summit,  uncertainty loomed large after Pyongyang threatened to pull out of the June 12 summit  when US National Security Adviser John Bolton suggested that the US favoured a “Libyan model” for North Korea.

North Korea also took exception to the Trump administration’s suggestions that military pressure and sanctions had brought Pyongyang to the negotiating table. Trump responded by cancelling the meeting, but soon plans were worked out to resuscitate the summit.

That the summit did take place was a result of several factors. Before the meeting, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo downplayed the prospect of a transformational deal — the kind Trump and his aides had been advocating. While he said he was “very optimistic” that Trump and Kim could agree on a “framework” to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons, he made it clear that “there’s going to be a lot of work left to do.” Trump himself had indicated that he doubted he would deliver a blockbuster deal.

Finally in Singapore, the two leaders signed a document in which Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” and the US agreed to “provide security guarantees.” In a surprising move, Trump also said that he would halt US military exercises in South Korea. Though Trump has been tom-toming the deal and North Korea is celebrating, it remains far from clear if North Korea would agree to and abide by a denuclearisation deal that lies at the heart of Trump–Kim summit.

Credible verification of denuclearisation is a tough job and the summit has not laid out any roadmap for its achievement. Though the Trump administration has indicated that economic aid might be a prime motivator for North Korea to come to the table, Pyongyang has been making it clear that it is not likely to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for American economic aid. 

There are other differences as well. North Korean demands of the denuclearisation of the entire peninsula would likely require the withdrawal of American nuclear-capable forces from the region, a grand bargain that the Trump administration has so far refrained from commenting upon. Washington has underlined that North Korea will not see any economic sanctions lifted until it has demonstrated “complete denuclearisation.”

Last week, Kim got his moment under the sun with the US President. And Trump got a foreign policy success, for the time being, one that his predecessors failed to get. But something has changed on the Korean peninsula. Kim now has a nuclear deterrent and feels relatively safe in pursuing global outreach. He now wants economic development for the longevity of his regime as the economic sanctions have been biting.

China seems to have made it clear that it cannot forever be the guarantor of a destabilising North Korea. It wanted more rational behaviour from its client state, if only to make its dream of Chinese hegemony in the coming decade a possibility. South Korea is prepared to engage the North under President Moon Jae-in. Japan has also welcomed this initiative in a cautious manner, so as not to be left out completely.

India has also done well to position itself as North Korea opens up to the world, with the recent visit of Minister of State for External Affairs, Gen V K Singh. A denuclearised Korean peninsula, if it happens, can bring to an end the unholy nexus between Pakistan and North Korea.

And though major economic benefits will accrue to China and South Korea, New Delhi can also engage in substantive economic and trade ties with Pyongyang. Indian diplomacy will have to nimble if it is to take advantages of the rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape on the Korean peninsula. 

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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