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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 15 August 2018

Trump-Kim summit: a great triumph doesn't need to mean complete capitulation from North Korea

Persuading North Korea to transition from the 'axis of evil' to a country that engages with the world 16 years later would be just cause for celebration, writes Sholto Byrnes

US President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore today. Susan Walsh  / AFP
US President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore today. Susan Walsh  / AFP

The summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un has provoked – as with any news related to the American president – a mixed reaction.

On the one side are those who see a greater chance of bringing a rogue nuclear state into the family of nations, under the impulsive but win-oriented Mr Trump and a North Korean leader who seems to accept that improvements in his country’s economy are necessary and is therefore genuinely willing to make concessions.

On the other are those whose distaste for Mr Trump is so great that they cannot grant him credit for anything without adding a massive caveat. Hence The Economist said: “The summit could look, at least, like a success” but added that could come “at an alarming price”.

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If, however, one approaches the meeting from an objective and realist perspective, it would surely be fair to say that significant progress has already been made. For the summit and what has preceded it, such as the love-in between Mr Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in during their April meeting, widely described as “historic” - represents a de-escalation in itself.

Mr Trump clearly understands that today’s events are the beginning of a process. That he is not expecting Mr Kim to deliver everything that he or his most hawkish advisers would like in a matter of a few hours is encouraging. If it would be foolish to make the perfect the enemy of the good, it would be even more so to raise expectations to unattainable levels.

As I argued a few weeks ago, Mr Kim will be loath to rid himself entirely of his nuclear capabilities and certainly not swiftly.

If the summit produces a lesser outcome, such as a declaration to end or go down the path of ending the state of war that still exists between the two Koreas, that alone would be a definite achievement.

The North has been such a dangerous outcast for so long that any step towards normalisation ought to be welcomed.

Mr Trump has admitted “there’s a good chance that it won’t work out” and that it might just be a “‘getting to know you’ meeting plus” – which he is right to say “could be a very positive thing”, for jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.

Still, he would like a win and may not care if it is one that disturbs America’s allies.

If he talks about withdrawing US troops from South Korea or agrees a deal that involves the North getting rid of its long-range ballistic missiles – the ones that can reputedly reach American soil – but not the short-range ones, that will dismay Japan and suggest that American guarantees to its friends in the Asia Pacific are not to be trusted. (This is the “price” that The Economist would find “alarming”.)

But what is disconcerting for Japan is, I'm afraid to say, not necessarily catastrophic for the rest of the world.

Secondly, there is doubt about just what US commitment in East Asia – or anywhere – is these days anyway.

Would Americans today have the stomach to go to war over Taiwan? Would the US get into a military stand-off in the South China Sea?

If the burghers of the Baltic states now rest less easily in their beds, worrying that US-led Nato can no longer be relied upon should Vladimir Putin attempt another annexation, the citizens of Tokyo cannot expect any greater protection from what is a far less imminent threat.

And a realist would argue that reducing the risk and instability posed by North Korea would still constitute a greater gain.

Given that Mr Trump’s unpredictability is one of the few things one can predict about him, it is always possible that the summit will come to nothing or that the insults he and Mr Kim traded in the past will resume – although we must hope not.

Mr Trump would also be wise to give face to China for helping facilitate any successful outcomes, while the world will have to face the unpalatable fact that past human rights abuses will not be addressed, as they simply cannot at this stage.

A realist accepts that, which is why realists are sometimes considered to be so amoral – although in fact realism, as the Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt wrote recently, merely “tries to explain world politics as they really are, rather than describe how they ought to be”.

What we should really be wary of are the warmongers who insist that if Mr Trump comes away with anything other than complete capitulation on the part of Mr Kim, he will have failed.

You don't have to be a realist to think that something a lot less than that would be a great triumph. Managing to persuade North Korea to transition from being a member of George W Bush’s “axis of evil” in 2002 to one that engages with the world and seeks to end its isolation 16 years later would be just cause for celebration.

That such a result may disappoint Mr Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton is neither here nor there. Nor does it necessarily matter if Mr Kim decides that concession is the better part of valour only because he feared that Mr Trump might really rain “fire and fury” on his country.

Peace is a process. It takes time. If Mr Kim is taking the first steps down that road, Mr Trump may truly deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. That he would have won it for a concrete achievement while his admired predecessor won it for doing nothing at all would be an irony he would certainly savour.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia

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