The Singapore peacemakers


The world watched with understandable interest, if not anxiety, the Singapore Summit between US President Donald Trump and autocratic ruler of Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) Kim Jong-un. Trump staked personal credibility as in the past over two decades and a half, spanning presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama, many deals and agreements were reached but never fully observed. In balance is the Korean Peninsula’s future, its denuclearisation and impact on other regions and nations like Iran. The summit will also likely impact the Chinese strategic calculus and relations with its troublesome protégé, conveniently used both as a buffer with the Republic of Korea (ROK) and a captive commercial and strategic asset.
When India tested nuclear devices in 1998, it faced palpable Western hostility, reflected in the questioning by a deluge of Western and Japanese television networks. It was argued then whether it was a coincidence that China clandestinely shared nuclear weapon technology with Pakistan and missile wherewithal with DPRK. Then ignored when the two exchanged it, as Benazir Bhutto recounted having done on a visit to Pyongyang as PM of Pakistan. Strategically, China determined decades ago that the challenge to its predominance in Asia could come only from India and Japan-ROK. Pakistan was bolstered to tie down India and DPRK the other two.
Iran watching the Singapore proceedings carefully issued a warning on the morning of the summit that DPRK should be mindful of Trump’s record in abandoning the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran. The US-DPRK terms of engagement would naturally impact a resolution of US’ standoff over the Iran deal. By restricting the Iranian enrichment programme to a decade and allowing a sunset clause, complete denuclearisation was never an end objective. But with DPRK, the US seeks complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of nuclear weapons programme and assets, reduced to the acronym CVID. In the joint statement while Trump promises “to provide security guarantees to DPRK”, he, in turn, obtains DPRK’s “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”.
The easy loitering walk-past the media by Trump and Kim after their luncheon meeting, a peep by the latter inside the US presidential sedan called “The Beast” and joint signing of a declaration seemed to indicate at least personal chemistry, which Trump repeatedly hinted at during the presser. Quizzed when complete denuclearisation will commence, Trump said they were “starting that process quickly, very, very quickly”. In the presser, he shared that two additional steps had been agreed upon. One, the US will discontinue military exercises with ROK, which Trump thought were expensive and unnecessarily provocative. Two, and this would get Trump electoral returns back home on the eve of the crucial mid-term elections, remains of over 6,000 US servicemen shall be promptly returned by DPRK.
Security guarantees to DPRK would have implications for US allies ROK and Japan. When asked if this meant early withdrawal of 32,000 US troops in ROK, Trump said this would not happen “right now”. In turn, the US would have to convert CVID into transparent measures by DPRK to give up its nuclear assets and programme. Similar commitments existed in the 1994 framework agreement negotiated by the Clinton administration, whereby DPRK was to shut down its heavy-water reactor at Yongbyon and was to receive, in exchange, two light-water reactors and oil.
In 2000, a DPRK Vice-Marshal brought a personal letter for President Clinton from Kim’s father, who died in 2011. But once President George W Bush took over and 9/11 led to US intervention to depose regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively, and Bush in a 2002 speech included DPRK in his “Axis of Evil”, the mood changed in DPRK, which withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003. Six-nation talks were held off and on during 2003-07 and another agreement hammered out on February 13, 2007, despite DPRK having tested a nuclear device on October 9, 2006. DPRK promised “action for action”, a phrase also used by Iranians, but in reality, they kept using negotiations to obtain vital economic sustenance while relentlessly developing nuclear weapons and missile technology.
What then is different this time around? Perhaps the two protagonists. Trump, as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour described him, can be a bully or a pussy-cat utilising negotiating methods honed over a lifetime of business dealings. It is possible that young Kim, basically a genetic copy of his patrilineal line, may have consolidated power enough to attempt moving his nation from out of the strategic corner. Trump feels that Kim is willing to move further than DPRK ever went because of confidence Trump has been able to generate in his words. But Iranian warning about US guarantees and the fate of Gaddafi, having voluntarily abandoned his weapons of mass destruction programme, and Saddam Hussein, having bluffed about one, with both dethroned and dead would linger in North Korean minds. Trump’s credibility can hardly be high seeing his quarrel with G7 colleagues, particularly Canada, within hours of agreeing to sign the declaration.
The joint statement will be closely analysed domestically, as indeed in other major capitals of the world. Republican Presidents have the advantage, like those BJP Prime Ministers in India, that they can get away with a lot more dangerous diplomatic dalliance than their rivals. President Obama was roundly criticised by the Republicans for his Cuba outreach for ignoring Cuba’s rights record. The same yardstick will hardly be applied this time around. Though Trump said he did raise the rights abuses, he did not press. DPRK has already dismantled its nuclear testing site, which is irrelevant to its nuclear programme now as its weapon design has been tested successfully. It may abandon ICBM missile tests that potentially threaten US mainland.
Trump also announced that additionally DPRK had decided to dismantle its advanced missile testing facility. But the risk is of these developments triggering Japanese concerns and lurching them towards self-reliance in nuclear deterrence. But if, indeed, what has been witnessed today is historic, it could force Iran to re-negotiate a more intrusive inspection-based agreement without a sunset clause that now allows it an enrichment programme after a certain period. Trump opined Iran is today not so confident a nation and is welcome to return and negotiate “a real deal”. He may be underestimating Iranian nationalism and the will to resist.
Trump rather pompously declared that had he negotiated a decade earlier, he would have achieved success even easier. Nobel Peace prizes were awarded in the past for peace-making in West Asia or Obama’s nuclear disarmament speech. Some have died or were assassinated or left presidencies without achieving the promised goals. It is hoped Messrs Trump and Kim are more successful.
(Courtesy: The Tribune)