Could there be a more unlikely duo to begin a historic journey to attempt peace-making than US President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong un? A fiction writer conceiving of such a plot with characters like Trump and Kim would have been laughed at, his work trashed. What happened in Singapore though on June 12 was no fantasy. Trump, the 72-year-old real estate magnet and unpredictable President of the most powerful country in the world, bonded, howsoever temporarily, with the 35-year-old Kim, son and grandson of absolute dictators, and a ruthless dictator himself of a pariah and impoverished country.
In the normal course a US President would not have given a dictator like Kim any time at all. He would have left the task of dealing with such a person to middle level officers at the State Department. But there is a difference between dictators with and dictators without nuclear weapons. And Kim possess nuclear weapons and delivery systems allegedly capable of reaching the continental United States. Obviously, a nuclear arsenal can never be ignored. Whichever way it is looked at, it is Kim's stock of nuclear bombs and missiles that compelled Trump to travel 9000 miles to meet him. The object: persuade Kim to entirely give up his arsenal forever. To what extent has that essential aim been achieved at the Singapore summit?
A joint statement was signed by both leaders at the conclusion of the summit. A few hours later Trump addressed a 65-minute press conference; he exuded cautious confidence and was fairly open about the process that led to the summit as well as his expectations from it. The joint statement and the press conference provide sufficient material and insights to evaluate what has gone on and what can be expected.
Clearly, despite the drama of the past weeks and unprecedented blow-hot, blow-cold diplomatic process leading to the summit— covered in an earlier column—the US and North Korea were engaged in serious talks since spring this year. South Korea, Japan—two countries with a vital interest in the denuclearisation of North Korea—and China played a part leading to the Trump-Kim meeting. Documents such as the joint statement are often finalised at the 11th hour but an exchange of ideas over a substantial period takes sometimes over months either directly or through intermediaries as seems to be in this case.
US National Security Advisor John Bolton had said that his country wanted "complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation". The joint statement notes that Kim "reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula". It goes on to also note that Kim "commits to work" for this objective. When Trump was asked about the absence of the words "verifiable and irreversible" he said that the word "complete" was categorical enough. He confirmed that verification process would take place but that has to be worked out. On the absence of the word "irreversible" Trump said that once about 20% of the dismantling activity took place it would be very difficult for North Korea to re-start the programme.
These explanations notwithstanding and the security guarantee given by Trump it is clear the Kim was not prepared to beyond his previous formulations on this issue. Kim is shrewd enough to realise that such security guarantees are always subject to changing geo-political equations and can never be taken as permanent. That is why Trump is eager that the implementation talks should begin without delay and a senior US team would visit Pyongyang next week to begin discussions. He accepted that North Korea's intentions will be revealed only as the two countries engage in the details of the dismantling schedule.
For the time being the tough sanctions on North Korea will continue. However, while this is an indication of firmness Trump made a vital concession when he declared that US-South Korea military exercises will not take place because they were expensive and provocative. There is an obvious link between Kim's decision to shut down a missile engine testing facility and the decision on the exercises. This will also enable Kim to signal a concrete achievement to his people for whom the US and its leaders have been projected as simply evil. Now Trump is being projected in a softer light, not as a 'dotard'. Gradually, if US-North Korean moves continue as planned North Koreans will be shown an alternative reality. In this context Trump indication that he wants to work for the return of the 30000 US troops in South Korea will also be eventually played up by Kim.
Trump maintains that he made no real concession at 'legitimising' Kim through this summit. He also said that if through such meetings the safety of millions could be assured—the unmistakable reference was to a nuclear catastrophe– he would always go ahead with them. All this is fine but the fact remains that with the process that began in January, crowned with the summit, Kim has gained much. He will be able to tell his people that he was able to look the world's most powerful man in the eye and did not blink. Once he has met the US President can he be treated as a global pariah?
How should India react to the summit? Naturally, welcome any progress to nuclear disarmament-as it has- of regimes such as North Korea. Also, with the seeming thaw, the visit of MOS for External Affairs VK Singh to Pyongyang last month was timely.