The Kim-Trump pas de deux need not be fluff
President Donald Trump’s historic footfall in North Korea today is heavy with symbolism and puts the wily Kim Jong-un in a category of his own as a partner for Trump even as the doomsday clock ticks on.
Of course, this is an unprecedented moment of hope for a formal peace between the two enemies who merely ceased fire 66 years ago, to sign an armistice. Then they ceaselessly built lethal capabilities for a final reckoning, which might now involve nuclear weapons on both sides.
If there was a winner today, it was Kim. He brought the world’s most powerful leader to his side of the heavily fortified military demarcation line. With that single gesture, Trump conferred upon him the legitimacy as a national leader and global personality that his grandfather and father never were able to obtain.
They never got that prestige because neither had nuclear weapons nor Kim’s capacity to devastate Seoul with conventional canons, hidden close to where Trump took his gentle stroll of 20 steps.
Today, Kim acquired legitimacy as a credible negotiating partner for the American President, unlike his predecessors. For him, that’s huge. He will be better able to hold back is own hardliners who are profoundly steeped in anti-American theology for half a century.
Even preschool children are taught anti-Americanism in North Korea. So Kim has to overcome a lot of domestic challenges if he genuinely wants to dial down hostilities.
In the perception of the Chinese, Indians, Asians and many Europeans, Trump’s few steps were extraordinary because Kim did not come cap in hand as did his father periodically to obtain relief for North Korea’s hungry and poverty stricken people.
This time, he got the American President’s attention because he has sufficient asymmetrical military power both conventional and nuclear to make talking to him worthwhile.
The other winner is South Korean President Moon Jae-in. His people would be the first to suffer if Trump does something rash like using the US military to conduct strikes against North Korea. Greatly expanded business and economic ties with South Korea may be the carrots Kim needs to strengthen his grip on power in Pyongyang and undermine the hardliners. However, it is still uncertain whether he too is a hardliner.
Moon has worked hard in recent months to keep the thaw alive with Kim. Now Trump with his flair for the theatrical has kicked the ball again hoping to make Kim feel safe enough to roll back his plans to reach the American homeland with nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Simply restarting the dance with Kim is a plus for Trump who might yet make it to a joint Nobel Peace Prize, even if he achieves far less than North Korea’s complete denuclearization. For instance, getting Kim to halt his push for nuclear weapons by tying him into a peace treaty that forbids their use in exchange for long-term American security guarantees might be enough to get the Noble Committee’s attention for both leaders.
Americans who detest Trump would loathe that, but Asians would breathe a lot easier if Kim were corralled even at the cost of further inflating Trump’s ego.
Trump is far from being a traditional diplomat, but as Kim said about today’s meeting, “It’s a very courageous and determined act.”
If Trump’s gambit works and a treaty-bound Kim abandons his belligerence, the entire Indo-Pacific region would become a little safer. That would be a big gain indeed, especially since the Middle East’s Iranian pot is edging towards boiling point even as China grows its military and economic power to contain American influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Iran’s revolutionary theocrats would certainly notice if Trump manages to pacify Kim’s long-term fears about regime change and American military strikes. Their fears are similar.
China will take notice because its military land route to South Korea, a prime US ally, may become unusable. It will try hard to be part of any permanent peace between the US, North Korea and South Korea. Japan, China’s other main competitor in the region, will also want a seat at the peace table.
These are very long roads potholed with decades of distrust. And Trump’s motives might be shallow, like winning a second term by using sleight of hand to seem like a peace deal maker to his core supporters.
In any case, trying to slowdown the doomsday clock whichever way is a good thing for humankind. So keep your fingers crossed.