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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Can showmanship and chemistry really advance the cause of a US-North Korean peace?

Summitry as geopolitics through the medium of reality TV has sparked distaste among foreign policy pundits, writes Alan Philps

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un boarding an Air China aircraft after the Singapore summit. Singapore Ministry of Communications / EPA
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un boarding an Air China aircraft after the Singapore summit. Singapore Ministry of Communications / EPA

The theme of much western commentary on the summit in Singapore can be summed up in three words: Kim outmanoeuvres Trump.

There is certainly a rich seam of evidence to mine here: the Korean leader Kim Jong-un made no promises on “denuclearisation” that had not been made before, and with greater clarity, by his father and grandfather, promises which came to naught.

By suspending the annual military drills with the South Korean armed forces and indicating that he wanted to remove the 30,000 US troops in South Korea, Donald Trump appeared to abandon his allies in East Asia to deal alone with a rising China.

The third, and perhaps most serious accusation, is that Mr Trump allowed himself to be suckered by China. For months the Chinese have insisted that the way out of the North Korean nuclear crisis is the “freeze for freeze” plan – that Mr Kim would freeze his nuclear programme in exchange for the US freezing its “provocative” military exercises in South Korea.

This proposal was memorably dismissed by Mr Trump’s United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley: “When a rogue regime has a nuclear weapon and a missile pointed at you, you do not take steps to lower your guard.”

But that is what Mr Trump has done. In effect, he has agreed to China’s freeze-to-freeze proposal, abandoning the pre-condition that North Korea must accept the “complete, verifiable and irreversible” dismantling of its nuclear programme.

More broadly, the charge is that the Chinese leader Xi Jinping allowed Mr Trump to believe that the president’s policy of “maximum pressure” on North Korea was bringing Mr Kim to the negotiating table. No doubt it did. But the issue is rather more subtle. Beijing holds the sanctions lever, not Washington, since almost all of the rogue state’s trade is with China. In recent months, Beijing relaxed the sanctions regime and has made clear that maximum pressure through that route is no longer on the table.

Not surprisingly, the front pages of the state-controlled North Korean media on Wednesday were full of colour pictures of Mr Kim’s summit triumph. After biding its time for many hours, the North Korean news agency reported on a string of victories for the pariah state: Mr Trump had expressed his intention to halt US-South Korean military exercises, had offered security guarantees to Pyongyang and would lift sanctions as relations improve. Mr Kim had been invited to visit the White House.

Underlying doubts voiced by foreign policy professionals is the understandable distaste for summitry as geopolitics though the medium of reality TV. Can a big show and some personal chemistry really advance the cause of peace?

Mr Kim was fully aware of the unreality of the staging of the summit in Singapore, likening it to a science fiction movie. Indeed, Mr Trump had brought with him a ludicrous video of North Korea’s future in the form of a Hollywood trailer.

But this is not the first time that a US president has gone rogue. At his first summit with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan was so taken with the man from Moscow that he was willing to sacrifice the whole of the US nuclear arsenal in the interests of world peace. Reagan was quickly reeled in by the US foreign policy establishment.

We can already see signs of that happening again: Admiral Dennis Blair, former US director of National Intelligence, told the BBC that US national security policy could not be made off-the-cuff by the president, particularly one who by his own admission had not slept for 25 hours.

Some other comments by US presidents at summits are best forgotten. After president George W Bush said he had looked into Vladimir Putin’s soul at their first meeting and found him trustworthy, he no doubt wished he had kept his mouth shut.

Against the impropriety of what looked to Mr Trump’s critics as a grand ceremony to welcome Mr Kim into the nuclear club, one question has to be asked: what was the alternative? Mr Kim was never going to announce at the summit that he would renounce the nuclear arsenal built by his family over 50 years. And if he ever does so, the process would take a decade to complete.

It would be naive to believe that a long and arduous diplomatic process will necessarily follow a glitzy opening show. But it is not impossible. Only recently, the talk was of nuclear annihilation of North Korea and the chance of war on the Korean peninsula was put at 50 per cent.

It is worth remembering too that, despite the president’s love of being centre stage, it is not all about Mr Trump. The summit would not have come off without the commitment of the South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Nor would it have happened without the support of Beijing, which has a strong interest in defusing the nuclear crisis on its border.

What will the Korean peninsula look like in five years’ time? Mr Trump outlined a vision of the North’s pristine beaches dotted with holiday homes, perhaps even emblazoned with his own name. More likely is that China will be the dominant economic and military power there. US troops could still be in South Korea but surely not for much longer.

With the power of China rising, the stationing of so many US troops there will be an anomaly and the US, while not abandoning East Asia, will be moving over the horizon. Indeed, it already is to a certain extent: the bombers which provide the South’s defensive shield are in far-off Guam. The US will be struggling to maintain its dwindling technological lead over China and will have less interest in boots on the ground.

With or without Mr Trump, the US dominance of East Asia is in inevitable decline and the Singapore summit will be seen in future as an episode in a long game between Beijing and Washington, one where Mr Trump produced a great show but could no longer call all the shots.