Who would have guessed it? US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un achieved a stunning success this week when they met face-to-face in Singapore.
It was the first time a sitting American president ever met a leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Seven decades of hostility melted away when Trump and Kim greeted each other with warm handshakes and smiles.
Over the past year, the two leaders had dueled with extremely bellicose rhetoric. Many people around the world feared that a nuclear war was imminent. After the unlikely summit in Singapore, the world suddenly feels relieved that a peaceful way forward may be found after all.
It has to said that this week’s diplomatic exchange is exactly what Russia and China had been advocating for many months, if not years. Only through mutual engagement can mistrust and animosities be dispelled to create constructive dialogue.
At the beginning of this year, it was the young North Korean leader who took the initiative by extending a hand of friendship to South Korean President Moon Jae-in. To his credit, President Moon accepted and quickly built up a dialogue which led to the breakthrough of North Korea attending the Winter Olympics hosted South of the border.
It was most likely Moon’s prudent mediation that then enabled back-channel contact between Washington and Pyongyang, despite the background of fiery, aggressive rhetoric. President Trump deserves praise for responding to overtures from North Korea for a peaceful dialogue. Trump’s unorthodox openness led to the historic summit this week in Singapore.
Another key element evidenced this week was how Trump put aside high-handed ultimatums to North Korea for unilateral nuclear disarmament. There was a leery expectation among many observers that the American side would approach the Singapore summit as a forum for North Korea’s capitulation. A certain deal-breaker.
Last month, the meeting nearly failed to materialize when hawkish members of the Trump administration recklessly compared North Korea’s fate to Libya. In the end, President Trump managed to salvage the summit by assuring Pyongyang that he was genuine about seeking a mutual dialogue.
This week, Trump delivered on a broadminded engagement. He did not issue high-handed demands. Instead, he made a major concession to North Korea by vowing to cancel future US war maneuvers on the Korean Peninsula. Trump actually referred to the annual military exercises as “provocative war games”.
Moreover, the US president talked about ending the Korean War (1950-53) with the imminent signing of a full peace treaty, and the eventual removal of nearly 30,000 US troops from South Korea.
This is the big-picture, pragmatic security guarantees that North Korea has long called for if it is expected to participate in a comprehensive peace settlement, including the removal of nuclear weapons from the peninsula. This broader approach in which the US recognizes its historic obligations to resolving the conflict is also what Russia and China had been advocating.
This so-called “freeze-freeze” reciprocal reduction of antagonism was until recently rejected by the Trump administration as it had been by previous US presidencies. The American side was encumbered with an arrogant view that its military forces in the region were not part of the problem.
Trump has upended that logjam in American attitude towards Korea. When Trump greeted Kim this week he did so with a refreshing attitude of civility and equality, not treating the North Korean leader as a demonized pariah. More importantly, Trump stepped up to the plate to offer major concessions in order to engage Kim with trust that the White House is indeed serious about a comprehensive peace settlement.
Another positive sign was that Trump did not demand a prompt denuclearization by North Korea. Again, there seemed to be a shift towards wisdom that any progress has to be part of a gradual reciprocal process in which the Americans have also obligations to deliver in terms of scaling back their military forces.
This is all very promising. But still yet only in the realm of potential. The main thing is that for now the American and North Korea leaders appear to have forged a solid understanding and mutual commitment. Trump, surprisingly, has risen to the occasion to show real leadership.
It bodes well too that Trump’s vow to cancel war games seems a firm offer. In subsequent meetings later this week in South Korea and China, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated the suspension of military exercises.
Crucially, the Singapore summit has been welcomed by all regional players. South Korea, China and Russia as well as Japan have all greeted the outcome. This will provide an essential supportive forum for dialogue to build in the coming months and years. Japan has expressed some reservation about the cancellation of military drills with the US, but South Korea has said that it is ready to accept the suspension for the sake of building trust and furthering dialogue.
Ironically perhaps, the greatest threat to Trump’s bold peace initiative with North Korea stems from his domestic political foes. Rather than grasping an opportunity to win the peace and avert possible nuclear catastrophe, there was much negative reaction among the US political establishment following Singapore.
In particular, Democrats and some Republican hawkish neocons have been carping that Trump “gave too much away” to North Korea. Prominent sections of the anti-Trump news media, like the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN, have been undermining the initiative by complaining about Trump not raising the issue of human rights or not giving allies sufficient defense assurances. There is a strong sense that these concerns are disingenuous and are really driven by an obsession to attack Trump no matter what.
There is also the looming danger of US deep state reaction. Trump’s understanding of the need to build trust by de-escalating US military forces on the Korea Peninsula is appropriate for the search for a peaceful settlement. But for Washington’s imperial planners in the Pentagon and its menagerie of think-tanks such a long-term withdrawal of military force is anathema to power projection in Asia-Pacific, specifically towards Russia and China.
President Trump and Chairman Kim deserve huge respect for their willingness to engage. So too does South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in. A word of praise is due too to China and Russia for their positive advocacy.
But the way ahead is fraught with dangers and pitfalls. And those dangers to peace emanate from within the corridors of Washington DC.
A final cautionary word too is that Washington’s power is an endemic noxious entity, and that embroils the current president, despite his seemingly benign intentions towards North Korea. Washington is infested with criminal foreign conduct, from regime change to illegal wars. Trump’s aggression towards Iran and his sabotage of the nuclear accord is grounds for holding deep skepticism about anything coming from Washington. The current US-backed criminal siege of the Yemeni port city of Hodeida is another cause for distrust and contempt towards Washington’s global power designs.
All we can say perhaps for now with regard to US-North Korea relations is that a good start has been made. But peace is still a long way off.