Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

Trump-Kim summit: failed diplomacy could mean the return of a stand-off with renewed threats of fire and fury – and possibly the real thing

The preferred outcomes of North Korea and the US are at odds and yet both feel they are negotiating from a position of strength, writes Hussein Ibish

Kim Jong-un impersonator Howard X and Donald Trump impersonator Dennis Alan walk past shoppers at the Bugis Junction shopping mall in Singapore. How Hwee / EPA
Kim Jong-un impersonator Howard X and Donald Trump impersonator Dennis Alan walk past shoppers at the Bugis Junction shopping mall in Singapore. How Hwee / EPA

It's disconcerting that we might be on the right road and headed in the correct direction but we're not really sure that the drivers are sober – or even awake. US President Donald Trump will indeed meet North Korea's Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12, as originally planned.

That's great because less than a year ago, they were exchanging nasty personal insults and dire threats. A US-North Korean war would be horrendous and with North Korea developing long-range missiles and hydrogen bombs, it was becoming unnervingly plausible.

But any agreement will probably require one of the parties to back down significantly.

According to South Korea, both sides insist they want a complete, full and verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Yet they almost certainly imagine very different outcomes and both feel they are negotiating from positions of strength.

Mr Trump seems to genuinely think North Korea might relinquish its nuclear weapons in exchange for security and economic incentives. North Korea, as always, is hoping to divide Washington from Seoul and push the US out of the way so Pyongyang can eventually absorb the south.

Yet neither will be willing to make such concessions –unless they’ve completely changed their outlook.

The raison d'etre of the Kim dynasty completely rules out exchanging its nuclear deterrent for even the most generous economic and security incentives.

There are two Koreas and the northern regime was established with the explicit goal of uniting the country under the banner of its extreme and racist nationalism.

But since South Korea began completely outstripping the north in economic, technological and all other material terms in the 1970s, the Kim dynasty’s non-economic and even anti-economic ideology has further ossified.

North Koreans are generally well aware of the vastly superior living conditions in the south. The North Korean regime’s raison d’etre was never economic and that has grown more rather than less true over time.

According to its own narrative, North Korea constitutes a heavily militarised vanguard of a supposedly beleaguered Korean race for the purpose of defeating outsiders, especially the US and uniting Korea.

Evidence suggests many Koreans, including in the south, take that as a respectable and credible, if misguided, national mission.

North Korea's modus operandi has always been primarily military. Having mastered the ultimate military technology, how could such a state give up its nuclear weapons?

The south might be the successful Korean material and economic model but the north supposedly embodies military power and genuine independence.


Read more from Hussein Ibish:

Trump's art of the deal has failed him in Pyongyang and Tehran

Palestinians need a Gandhi-like figure to oppose Israeli rule

Does Washington have the power to prevent nuclear weapon proliferation?


If Mr Kim agrees to genuinely forgo nuclear weapons, even in phased stages, for security and economics, he will be repudiating the world view and values of his father and grandfather and, indeed, the entire belief system of his country since its founding.

Nonetheless, an agreement is possible.

Mr Kim might disingenuously promise to relinquish nuclear weapons in the context of full denuclearisation without ever fulfilling that. And he might agree to genuinely stop any further thermonuclear and intercontinental missile development, essentially freezing North Korea's nuclear weaponisation as it stands: on the brink of threatening the continental US but not actually doing so in a thorough or reliable manner.

In exchange, he would surely demand measures that would put Washington well on the way to full withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula, in the hope of an eventual reunification on his terms.

Such an agreement is hardly unimaginable. But there is no doubt which side would be effectively backing down. Through the upcoming summit itself, Mr Trump has already handed Mr Kim a major political and diplomatic victory in exchange for nothing.

When he agreed to a meeting as equals, Mr Trump almost certainly didn’t realise the huge unwarranted legitimisation he was handing “little rocket man”.

Any agreement, however it is packaged, that effectively leaves North Korea in possession of nuclear weapons and missiles that can threaten its neighbours, but not the continental US, will effectively be a US climbdown.

That is not necessarily a disaster though. Certainly, a deeply flawed agreement of that kind is preferable to a war and if it makes nuclear conflict less likely, then perhaps it should be welcomed. But if Pyongyang secures this and proclaims it a colossal victory, it wouldn’t be wrong.

Of course, if Mr Kim accepts real denuclearisation in exchange for mere security and economic pledges, the Pyongyang regime will not only have capitulated but effectively begun to dismantle itself.

A viable agreement regularising US-North Korea relations, ending the Korean War and permanently forestalling a nuclear confrontation in northeast Asia would not merely be welcome but one of the greatest triumphs of modern diplomacy. If Mr Trump can pull that off, he would deserve the Nobel Prize he craves.

But it's more likely that we will eventually see a dreadfully flawed deal marketed with Mr Trump's patented "truthful hyperbole".

Worse still, failed diplomacy could mean the return of an increasingly intense stand-off with renewed threats of "fire and fury" – and possibly the real thing.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

Updated: June 9, 2018 06:47 PM