Kim, Trump Summit — a promissory note without any real promise


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

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There seems to be universal agreement that Kim Jong-un and the North Koreans gained more from the recent Donald Trump/Kim Summit than did Trump, America, and the world by extension. It was clear that Kim went into the summit far more prepared than Trump; that he knew exactly what he wanted; and that at the end of the day he left more pleased with his accomplishments than Trump did. But that the summit took place at all was a historic event which should not be minimised.

The new year began with increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The heated rhetoric between presidents Trump and Kim reached boiling point with both leaders behaving like two schoolyard bullies trumpeting the size of their vast weapons of mass destruction, with Trump himself promising fire, fury and the annihilation of the North Korean dictator. Kim was to later fire his latest intercontinental ballistic missile rocket that experts adjudged could reach the continental US. This event, more than any, convinced the world that the nation's nuclear capabilities were not to be taken for granted; that, indeed, North Korea had become a nuclear power, and that it would be utter madness for a war, conventional or nuclear, to be waged on the peninsula.

So when the conversation changed from hell-breathing fire and brimstone to one of negotiations and diplomacy the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. In fact, it was a dramatic turn of events precipitated by Kim himself. He indicated his willingness to meet with Trump then went on a visit to China. He later met with his South Korean counterpart to assess the possibilities of peace on the peninsula. This was after his Olympic team had joined with the South Korean team at the Olympics in South Korea. This was more than a statement of unity. If this was all theatre, it did demonstrate that there was emerging a political will to forge a process that may lead to peace.

But it also made a wider statement that Kim was preparing to get more visibility on the global stage and perhaps to win some respectability for his nation which his grandfather and his dad did not achieve. Perhaps his nation could begin to make a slow exit from the Dark Ages.

So when the time came for him to engage Trump he was well prepared. One can be sure that he was well schooled in the personality of the president. He must have been more than aware of his narcissistic tendencies; how he gloried in praise, how he viewed the world, and his relationship with nations through transactional prisms. Make him look good and he may yet give away the barn to him.

Well, he might not have got the entire barn, but he left the summit with a good feeling and gifts that he might not have anticipated. For one, Trump promised to end the war games between the USA and South Korea, for which North Korea had been advocating. Never mind that this came as shocking news to the South Koreans and America's allies in the region. Also, Trump went overboard in his praise of the dictator. His National Security Agency even made a complimentary video of what life could be in North Korea if peace could be achieved. Prosperity would flow in the country.

Most important for Kim he achieved the feat of meeting with a US president, which no North Korean leader had been able to do. This increased his visibility, if not stature, in the world. At the very least, it gave the impression that, as a young man, he appreciates the imperative of moving his country from the Middle Ages into the 21st century. He cannot do this with the threat of annihilation hanging over his head.

So he was serious about the summit, perhaps more so than Trump, who boastfully, narcissistically and naively thought that he did not have to prepare for it. Trump, self-absorbed in what he believes to be his legendary deal-making skills, thought America would be happy with the outcomes.

If the outcomes are what they seem to be, Americans and the rest of the world cannot be so happy. For one, there was no clearly defined set of deliverables with timelines to any of the prognostications emanating from the summit. Trump saying that he would stop the war games means nothing since this was not carefully thought out. Now that he has climbed down from the mountaintop he will have to contend with the reality in the valley. US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the South Koreans, and America's partners in that part of the world are part of the reality with which Trump will have to contend. When faced with reality, expect Trump to default to outright obfuscation as to what he meant or did not mean.

The main position that Trump trumpets is that North Korea has committed to denuclearisation. To believe this is to believe that one can see warts on a gnat's behind with the naked eye. What this means to Trump, to his fellow Americans, the world, and to Kim and the North Koreans is not clear. What seems clear is that the North Koreans will never give up their nuclear weapons in which they have invested so much time, effort and money to build over several decades. Furthermore, their nuclear capability is their insurance policy for national security and the perpetuation of Kim in power. To think that Kim would just give up his “toys” like that is preposterous.

It would have been more believable if Trump had said that they had reached some consensus on the denuclearisation of the peninsula, but that this would be done over a decade or more on a gradual basis. The world would have been more comfortable if there was the insistence on the immediate cessation of activities to build further bombs and the immediate end of the missile programme to deliver them. These would have to be verifiable and followed with a set of guarantees, such as lifting the crippling sanctions on North Korea on a phased basis, increased commercial trade with the nation, and perhaps a mini-Marshall Plan to lift the country out of economic obscurity. All of this takes time, and certainly do not presume the rushed timetable that Trump is fond of talking about.

For now, Kim will never give up his nuclear arsenal, and to think that he would without iron-clad guarantees is ridiculous at best. No concession of any sort should be made to the regime on the basis of them promising to do something. All actions must be transparent and verifiable or nothing meaningful will be achieved.

The meeting defused tension on the peninsula and the world. This we can all concede was a great first step, but it must not be exaggerated beyond that. There is clearly the need for follow-up meetings if something more substantial was agreed than the generalised promissory note that was signed at the end of the meeting. At this time, the meeting was a promissory note without any real promise. We will see in the days ahead.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or

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