Trump and Kim, the unlikely peace protagonists
Is it conceivable that two of the most unlikely global figures, the objects of satirists and comedians the world over, could be in line for a Nobel Peace Prize by the end of this year? All of a sudden, the idea of US President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, getting invitations to Oslo does not seem quite so outlandish — even if still a long, long way off.
Track back to last year, and North Korea was provocatively testing ballistic missiles at regular intervals; the US was amassing its military muscle in the waters of East Asia; Trump had taken to using the moniker of “Rocket Man” to describe his counterpart; and, most dramatically, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last September, Trump threatened to destroy North Korea, a nation of 25 million people. “The US has great strength and patience. If it is forced to defend ourselves or our allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” he said.
The North Korean leader responded by saying he would “tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.” After claiming that he had the nuclear button on his desk, Trump fired back with an intercontinental ballistic tweet that that his button was “much bigger and more powerful.”
Many feared a third world war. Any conflict would almost certainly risk bringing in South Korea, Japan and even China.
Can the talks between Trump and Kim really work? Is the US prepared to allow North Korea to maintain its nuclear weapons? It is extremely unlikely that Pyongyang is prepared to give up the estimated 60 warheads it has in its locker.
North Korea sees its nuclear arsenal as essential to its survival, citing the examples of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, who both failed to develop a nuclear deterrent and therefore left themselves vulnerable to regime change. Will the US accept that a nuclear North Korea is a fait accompli? What would this mean for anti-proliferation efforts, not least as the US is also upping the pressure on Iran?
The summit between the two leaders in June could collapse, not least given the unpredictability of the two lead characters. Kim has gotten something neither his father nor grandfather did: A summit with a serving US president. The protocol teams will be in crisis mode. A trip to the golf course might be off the menu, as North Korea only has one — although this did not prevent the Kim dynasty from setting some “spectacular” records. It was claimed Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father, carded a 34 with 11 holes-in-one on his first ever round.
Yet progress has been made. North Korea has agreed to abandon nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests as of April 21. The leaders of North and South Korea will be meeting on April 27 in the demilitarized zone that separates this divided peninsula. The incoming US Secretary of State and current CIA chief Mike Pompeo has met with Kim in Pyongyang.
But why now, when so many efforts have failed in the past? Perhaps it is the happy coincidence of timing when mutual interests converge. Trump will claim credit for his maximum pressure policy — a mix of genuine credible threats of force combined with additional sanctions, the most recent of which was contained in December’s UN Security Council Resolution 2397.
The North Korean leader probably also realizes that, in Donald Trump, he has an American leader who will not lecture him on human rights and democracy.
North Korea desperately requires economic development to rebuild a devastated economy that saw a massive drop in exports in 2017, especially with China. To address this, Kim will need to reform, which may be anathema to him, but the lifting of international sanctions will be a major aim. His ego must also be attracted to being the leader who brings this all to an end and takes his country in from the cold. Few states are more isolated, more cut off from the outside world than North Korea. Indeed, information is so controlled that the US-North Korean summit is a state secret.
The North Korean leader probably also realizes that, in Donald Trump, he has an American leader who will not lecture him on human rights and democracy. He will expect to be able to continue his repressive rule, which has included innovative executions, such as blasting five security officials with anti-aircraft guns last year.
For Trump, a major diplomatic deal on Korea would leave his critics floundering. He has always boasted that he is the man to do deals — a dealmaker-in-chief — and few would come bigger than this. His Twitter account would not be silent on how he succeeded where his predecessors had failed.
All of these efforts could fall apart overnight. The commitments to missile and nuclear test bans could be overturned with ease. The current nuclear test site inside a mountain cannot sustain further tests safely. As yet, North Korea has not released any of the foreign prisoners it holds. North Korea will attempt to dictate the terms of the talks, shift the agenda and not be trapped by terms it does not like. Its past record on sticking to agreements hardly inspires confidence. And North Korea will almost certainly insist on a reduction of the 28,500 US troops in South Korea.
Yet, if Trump and Kim do come up with a successful and lasting deal, only the most churlish would deny them the accolades that would be forthcoming. However, it is not worth getting those tickets to Oslo quite yet.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech