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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 27 New Delhi June 23, 2018

Kim and Trump Tango

Sunday 24 June 2018

by Mahendra Ved

That the sun rises in the East has never been fully appreciated in a world where the West has dominated for long. The much-trumpeted—and much-doubted—Asian Century may have actually begun now with the Singapore Summit and the historic handshake between leaders of the two nations, the US and North Korea, who have begun a process that hopefully marks the beginning of a process that pulls them—and the world—from the nuclear precipice.

Although the Kim and Trump tango is more about promises than firm, declared next steps, that a beginning has been made towards denuclearisation in the world is very significant by itself. Keeping in mind particularly that North Korean leaders have been branded as maverick, and also that China still pulls the strings in Pyongyang.

US President Donald Trump, no less eccentric, nonetheless took a bold initiative in meeting the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, at their summit in the beautiful city state of Singapore on June 12. They put arms around each other to develop informality and warmth so necessary to create diplomatic goodwill and the first step toward long months of bargaining.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in welcomed the summit, which envisaged denuclearisation of Korea. South Korea though is not known to possess nuclear weapons.

Globally, most countries expressed support for the two leaders, although President Trump faced some flak for standing with Kim with his country’s flag ceremonially placed along with that of the US in the background. Iran, with which Trump has cancelled a treaty signed by his predecessor President Barack Obama, though warned North Korea that the US President would not honour his words in the coming months.

The Singapore Government went out of the way to ensure pleasant environs for the summit at the Capella Resort in the beautiful Santosa Island known for its peace and bird sanctuary.

North Korea had announced before the summit that it had destroyed its nuclear testing tunnels, and President Trump made a surprise announce-ment, shocking to allies Japan and South Korea, that it would stop military exercises with them. Reports from Washington said many top officials in the Pentagon were in disbelief.

Notably, Kim and Trump met alone for 45 minutes, and what came out was obviously what was stated by them, and a written declaration that followed.

President Trump has been strongly criticised in his country for conceding major concessions, and Michael J. Green of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a leading think- tank in Washington DC, observed the unilateral declaration to stop exercises with allies was “breathtaking”.

Seoul and Tokyo were not informed first, which should have been the protocol, and more shocking was Trump’s statement that “he would like to get our troops out of Asia”. When that happens, and if that happens, the geopolitics of the global presence of the US Navy and Air Force will literally go for a sea-change.

It may be noted that before the summit, China had made a demand to this effect, asking the US to stop militarisation of the South China Sea where Beijing itself has built artificial islands for military use. “China will not be scared of any warship or aircraft,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying had stated. China is known to pull the strings in and over Pyongyang, and President Trump’s gesture also placates the North Korean masters well.

For now, the excitement and a cautious sigh of relief for the world are on Trump meeting Kim after which he exulted on Twitter: “The world has taken a big step back from potential Nuclear catastrophe!”

The Kim and Trump encounter, or tango, was unprecedented as it saw the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy shake hands with the third generation scion of a dynastic dictatorship, standing as equals in front of their nations’ flags.

“There is no limit to what NoKo can achieve when it gives up its nuclear weapons and embraces commerce & engagement w/ the world. Chairman Kim has before him the opportunity to be remembered as the leader who ushered in a glorious new era of security & prosperity for his citizens!” Trump wrote.

The pact calls for a joint effort to build a ‘lasting and stable peace regime’, thus connecting nuclear disarmament to the de-escalation of the larger security dynamic in the Korean Peninsula, and guaranteeing security. For one, Kim can rest assured of the US trying to topple his regime.

In sum, Trump deserves credit for being what he is not known to be. During his campaign for Presidency in 2016—before that as well as since —Trump has consistently raised questions about the costs and benefits of US military presence in Asia.

He has insisted that America’s allies must do more. Trump is not the only revisionist in Asia. Kim’s emphasis on economic modernisation has turned the nuclear arsenal into a negotiating instrument rather than an end in itself. Also, President Moon, without whom Trump and Kim could not have got to Singapore, has defied the conventional wisdom in betting that reconciliation with the North is possible.

Trump has opened up space for rearranging the international relations of East Asia. Whether this will lead to partial de-militarisation of Asia remains to be seen.

“Trump has pulled off something that could make him a man of history and strengthen his America First project—howsoever unpalatable the thought is that Trump might become a winner in the overall bargain,” observed Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar, a noted Indian diplomat and commentator.

Hopefully, yes.

The author, a columnist for the New Strait Times, Malaysia, is a senior journalist who is currently the President of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA).

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