Today's Editorial

17 June 2018

Drumming it up

Source: By Sunanda K. Datta Ray: The Telegraph

Donald Trump called Kim Jong-un a "very smart negotiator". Actually, Kim showed himself the smarter of the two. He didn't shower Trump with compliments. He didn't boast on Twitter. He didn't bask in the deferential adulation of a press conference where he ran the risk of being carried away by heady rhetoric. He did not recklessly embroider the terse 400-word four-clause statement the two leaders signed on the island resort of Sentosa. North Koreans can read his considered version only in their party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun.

In contrast, Trump lived up to his surname which means "drum" or "trumpet" in ancestral German. "There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea," he tweeted on returning to the United States of America, gratuitously adding, "North Korea has great potential for the future!" The mix of bravado and showmanship at his rambling press conference in Sentosa went far beyond the joint statements "President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula". He claimed Kim would denuclearize "very quickly", announced the end of the joint US-South Korean military exercises which the North denounces as "intentional military provocation" and dress rehearsals for invasion, and promised to recall the approximately 30,000 US troops in South Korea.

Apparently, South Korea's president, Moon Jae-in, knew nothing of this momentous decision even though Trump telephoned him the evening before. Moon worked hard to facilitate the summit. He met Kim twice, signed a declaration whereby the two countries agreed to end hostile acts against each other, and flew to Washington to brief Trump. If South Korea was taken aback, what about Japan where the US has about 50,000 military personnel? The "permanent aircraft carrier" of Guam and US naval bases and seaborne troops all over the Pacific are also for Japan's protection, presumably against North Korea and China. Michael Pompeo, the US secretary of state, who is touring the region, will not only have to reconcile Kim's belief in a step-by-step implementation of the Sentosa accord with Trump's insistence on instant execution, but also convince Seoul and Tokyo that the American alliance is indeed "ironclad".

This may not be easy after Trump's refusal to endorse the G7 agreement in Quebec, and repudiation of the Paris climate change agreementTrans-Pacific Partnership and Iran nuclear deal. As Iran's official spokesman warned Kim, the US president is "a man who revokes his signature while abroad". If Trump's disclosures to the media do reflect serious commitments to Kim, a reorientation of US security policy in Asia is on the cards. Perhaps the renaming of Hawaii's US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command presaged far-reaching changes. But given the speed with which Trump appoints and sacks senior officers, some announcements may have been made on the spur of the moment like giving an absurd military salute to North Korean generals.

Kim, short, squat and bespectacled in flapping baggy pants as he walked about Singapore or strolled in the gardens of Sentosa's Capella Hotel, cannot be accused of mercurial inconsistency. The shy little smile that occasionally lights his face suggests the stodgy exterior might be misleading. The contrast between the two styles explains the misgivings of many Americans in May 2016 when Trump as presidential candidate announced he "would have no problem speaking to" North Korea's leader. They feared that the young and inexperienced leader of a reclusive state would take the hard-nosed Trump for a ride. But Kim is the product of a turbulent past, the third generation to rule North Korea. His dynastic survival by eliminating close relatives who were rivals is the story of his country.

The two Koreas are relics of the Second World War. The Potsdam Conference was in a quandary in 1945. Koreans didn't want the kingdom that imperial Japan had annexed in 1910 to be restored. The victors had their own expectations from Korea's strategic location. So they divided it into a Russian Zone and an American Zone along the 38th parallel, a line that the US state department later confessed made "no political, geographical, economic or military sense", with the promise of independence (presumably also unification) "in due course". The Soviets had their Kim II-sung of the New People's Party. The Americans found an utterly reactionary, allegedly aristocratic exile called Yi Sung-man who lived in history and infamy as Syngman Rhee.

Constantly needled, the North launched a massive attack on the South on June 25, 1950. With Harry Truman yelling about "raw, unprovoked aggression", the United Nations, which the Soviets boycotted, ruled that "all member nations shall render every assistance" to the victim. That threat of global war might have been avoided if Washington had heeded the Moscow specialist, George F. Kennan, regarded as the author of "containment", who suggested that the entire Korean peninsula was naturally part of the Soviet sphere of influence. Would Kim have been advised, one wonders, of Kennan's conclusion, "It is beyond our capabilities to keep Korea permanently out of the Soviet (meaning Communist) orbit." He saw Soviet control as "preferable to continued U.S. involvement in that unhappy area". Conflict might also have been minimized at a later stage if instead of deriding India's ambassador in Peking, Kavalam Madhava Panikkar, as "Mister Panicky", Americans had noted his warning from Zhou Enlai that China would intervene if North Korea were attacked. Jawaharlal Nehru reportedly branded Americans as "more hysterical as a people than almost any others except perhaps the Bengalis".

Trapped in arguments over the exchange of prisoners of war and location of a demarcation line and demilitarized zone, an armistice agreement to "ensure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved" was not signed until July 27, 1953. Sixty-five years later and despite Trump's grandstanding on Sentosa, the Korean peninsula is still at war. It wouldn't have been if John Foster Dulles of "Dull, Duller, Dulles" fame had not rejected Zhou's proposal at the 1954 Geneva Conference that a peace treaty should replace the armistice agreement. As the prospect dawns at last of that happening, it seems another age when North Korea was accused of belligerence if it didn't make (or respond to) peace overtures and of laying cunning traps when it did.

As North Korea's third largest trading partner and one of 24 countries with missions in Pyongyang, India has a stake in a settlement. A denuclearized North Korea would no longer need to pay millions of dollars to Pakistan's corrupt generals and politicians to buy hi-tech secrets and equipment from Abdul Qadeer Khan. China, as North Korea's biggest trading partner and principal political backer, is far more deeply involved. In order to obtain Xi Jinping's endorsement of an agreed policy on sanctions, Pompeo will have to convince him that under US patronage Kim will not try to do to China what Mao Zedong and Zhou, instigated by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, did to the Soviet Union.

There's no denying Kim is a cool customer. Trump boasted before the summit that he could size up someone in five seconds. He revised it to a second on Sentosa. Kim probably doesn't need a meeting at all. He goes by the other person's record. He may well have known that top US officials had to interact with their Canadian counterparts to smoothe things over after Trump's outrageous spat with Justin Trudeau. This is becoming something of a pattern in American diplomacy. But Pompeo may find a post-Sentosa damage control exercise somewhat more complex. While Trump, who needs success and doesn't lack courage, made or hinted at lavish commitments, Kim promised little on the record.

 

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