Trump’s reality show
North Korea’s nuclear strategy appears to have been vindicated, writes Eddie Ford
Surprising everyone, Donald Trump announced that he is ready to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong-un “by May”. Previously, the US president has dismissed Kim as “little rocket man” and a “maniac”, whilst the North Korean leader described Trump as a “mentally deranged dotard”, who is “unfit to hold the prerogative of supreme command of a country”.
Giving the news outside the White House, Chung Eui-yong - Seoul’s national security office chief, who brokered the putative meeting - declared that it was the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure policy”, together with “international solidarity”, that had “brought us to this juncture”. Chung also informed the world that the North Korean leader had told him he is committed to denuclearisation and will refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests. However, the security chief added that the Republic of Korea, the United States, Japan and its partners will “not repeat the mistakes of the past” - meaning that “the pressure will continue until North Korea matches its words with concrete actions”.
Obviously, if the meeting does go ahead it will be a completely unprecedented diplomatic move. Leaders of the two countries have never met face to face before, though Pyongyang has long sought a summit with the US - ever since the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, the US has refused to officially recognise that state. Bill Clinton came close to a meeting with Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, in 2000, but the arrangements had still not been finalised by the time he left office in January 2001. Kim has not ventured outside North Korea since inheriting power (quite literally) in 2011.
Following the horrendous Korean war there was never a peace treaty between the various parties. During the 1954 Geneva conference, Chinese foreign minister Zhou Enlai did proffer such a treaty, but the US secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, flatly turned it down. The armistice signed the year before de facto split the Korean peninsula into two states (it had been a singular political entity since 676AD).
Naturally, as alluded to by Chung in his White House statement, US officials have portrayed the future meeting as a victory for Trump’s foreign policy. They have stressed that the US would “not relax” its stringent sanctions regime before Pyongyang began disarming, as president Trump “is not prepared to reward North Korea in exchange for talks”.
In reality, however, the proposed summit between the two leaders is far more of a triumph for the North Korean regime - which might be getting close in some shape or form to the recognition it has always wanted - even if it does remain totally unclear whether Kim is actually prepared to limit his arsenal and what he might require in return for doing so. Nevertheless, North Korea’s ambassador to the US, Pak Song-il, praised his leader for the “broad-minded” and “courageous” decision, and advised the US to contribute to peace by adopting a “sincere position and serious attitude”.
Of course, the proposed summit might never happen. A previous deal, the 1994 ‘agreed framework’, involved deliveries of oil and the promise to build civilian nuclear reactors for North Korea, but fell apart as a result of mutual mistrust. Then things went wrong again in 2012, after both sides had agreed a short-lived moratorium on long-range missiles and nuclear weapons activity in return for food aid, but the deal was scuppered when Pyongyang launched a satellite with a powerful launch rocket that could be used in a ballistic missile.
Pyongyang has not yet commented officially on the summit plans - as well as a possible meeting with South Korean president Moon Jae-in in late April, revealed by Seoul last week. But in all likelihood the North Korean leadership is being careful not to be seen to offer too much to Washington, at least for the time being - it would clearly be risky for the regime to say right now that it is on the path to denuclearisation, as that could be taken as a betrayal of the country’s long cherished nuclear programme and general military pride.
At the weekend it sounded like business as usual, with the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper denouncing the US for its “inveterate repugnancy” and making “dangerous acts that may bring a war”. This underscored Pyongyang’s unhappiness with the continued sanctions against the country organised by Washington, with China feeling forced to participate. Kim himself has consistently demanded an end to what Pyongyang calls Washington’s “hostile policies”, which involve its military presence on and around the Korean peninsula and joint exercises with South Korea - though it is worth noting that Chung’s statement made a reference to how the North Korean leader “understands that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue”, leaving some wriggle room for future negotiations.
Having said that, another ill-omen is that the two Koreas did not march together at the opening ceremony of the Winter Paralympics in Pyongyangon March 9, as they had done at the opening of the Winter Olympics on February 9 - an act widely regarded as part of a gradual rapprochement between the two countries. But this time round they could not agree on a unified flag which shows the Korean peninsula in blue on a white background, the problem being - or so it seems - that the North wanted to include a little dot representing the Dokdo (or Takeshima) Islands, which are claimed by Japan as part of a long-running dispute going back to 1696. The South said its inclusion would run counter to the International Paralympic Committee’s recommendation “not to politicise sports events” - obviously a dreadful prospect - and so the Korean Paralympic Committee announced that the two Koreas had decided to “respect each other’s stance” and march separately.
Another important factor to consider is that Trump’s sudden decision to meet Kim after a prolonged period of sabre-rattling - including the threat that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” - has thrown the US administration into a state of semi-chaos. Many Republicans have expressed scepticism about the summit, with Republican senator Cory Gardner stating that Trump should not meet Kim until North Korea produces proof of “how we are going to get to those concrete, verifiable steps towards denuclearisation”. True to form, Trump’s team has issued a series of muddled and contradictory statements on the meeting and any possible precondition. Hence the president’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, stated on March 9 that he was “not going to have this meeting take place until we see concrete actions that match the words and the rhetoric of North Korea” - only to retract her comment in later briefings to reporters. Two days later her deputy, Raj Shah, said that the meeting had been premised on a “commitment to denuclearisation” made by Kim - yet on the same day, Mike Pompeo told CBS only that Kim had “agreed to have a conversation about denuclearisation”. What is going on?
Obviously this is a very awkward, if not embarrassing, turn of events for the Grand Old Party. Having repeatedly lambasted Barack Obama for what they deemed an overly conciliatory approach to Iran during nuclear talks, Republicans are struggling to defend Trump’s apparently new position. Reflecting a relatively large swathe of opinion within the party, Senator Jeff Flake said: “I don’t think anybody really believes that North Korea is prepared to denuclearise”. As for Senator Ron Johnson, when asked if Trump was being naive, he replied: “Let’s hope not”. Johnson went on to urge Trump to “ratchet up” sanctions on Kim, believing that the US must not “let off the pressure and just watch [North Korea’s] behaviour go in the wrong direction”. And bizarrely, at a rally in Pennsylvania Trump implored supporters not to boo when he mentioned Kim - “for now we have to be very nice” to the young leader.
Democrats have expressed concern that the president might not be acting in the proper interests of US imperialism. Senator Elizabeth Warren was unsettled by the idea that he might “be taken advantage of” during the negotiations. Echoing this view was Ben Rhodes, a former senior aide to Obama, who was involved in the Iran deal - he was anxious about the administration appearing “unprepared” for discussions of a similar gravity.
What must never be forgotten is that the Korean people on both sides of the border have a very strong desire for reunification. Another salient fact, which the BBC will never tell you, is that Kim Il-sung, the “eternal president of the republic” and the current Kim’s grandfather, was actually popular both in the north and south - he was seen as a stalwart of liberation from Japanese imperialism, whilst the US-backed regime in the south was regarded as being full of collaborators (a bit like the situation in Greece after the Nazi occupation, which saw British imperialism reinstate officials from the old regime).
In the 1920s Japan encouraged the immigration of Koreans to take up the lowest of low jobs. With World War II there came compulsory recruitment, particularly for work in war industries, the mines, and so on. This resulted in a substantial Korean minority in Japan (today the second largest after Chinese migrants). After World War II they were often to be found in pro-North Korean trade unions, cultural associations and educational institutions, not least due to the prestige of Kim Il-sung and his role in the anti-Japanese resistance. Such sentiments remained a significant political factor amongst the Korean minority till the 1970s.
The new talk of a historic summit between Trump and Kim seems like a vindication of North Korea’s nuclear strategy, not an abandonment. Only an idiot believes it had ever been the intention of the North Korean regime to bomb Guam, the US naval base in the western Pacific Ocean, let alone wipe out Los Angeles - such an act would be madness, and the Kim regime is certainly not mad. The intention all the way through has been to secure a peace treaty or official recognition that takes away the sanctions. What North Korea wants most of all is a deal where it does not suffer the same fate as Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi - who had the misfortune not to possess weapons of mass destruction.