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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 26 March 2019

Trump's troubled bromance with Kim has only increased North Korea's global standing

Throughout this bizarre relationship, the US president has dispensed with long-established diplomatic norms. Whether that will result in a safer or a more dangerous world is anyone's guess

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi. AP/ Evan Vucci
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi. AP/ Evan Vucci

If US President Donald Trump was surprised by the dramatic collapse of his Hanoi summit with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, he’s probably the only one.

It’s an understatement to call this diplomatic failure predictable. Yet, despite his miscalculations, Mr Trump has generated the most serious US-North Korean dialogue in recent history.

Whether that makes the world safer or more dangerous remains to be seen.

For more than 100 years, the diplomatic norm between countries, especially those at odds, is that the substance of negotiations is worked out by diplomats quietly and in advance.

Political leaders are brought in, typically at the last minute, to formalise those agreements, or to make dramatic, and politically costly, concessions or initiatives that allow a broader understanding to be reached.

Dealing with North Korea, Mr Trump has dispensed with this time-tested formula for diplomatic success. Instead he has emphasised his relationship, which he characterizes in bizarrely romantic terms, with the North Korean leader Mr Kim, and the force of his own personality, as somehow decisive.

During the first North Korea-US summit in Singapore last year, that was risky but plausible, because that meeting was intended to initiate, and not resolve or conclude, a new dialogue.

However, even by then the problems with Mr Trump’s approach were obvious.

Pyongyang and Washington did not share any common understandings about the definitions of the terms they were discussing. It’s evident that they still don’t.

In particular, the parties do not share a common understanding of what “denuclearisation” of the Korean Peninsula might mean.

Like his predecessors in the White House, Mr Trump seems to mean the complete, irreversible renunciation by Pyongyang of all its nuclear weapons.

But, like his grandfather and father before him, Mr Kim clearly means a set of North Korean concessions short of completely divesting from its nuclear capabilities, but with the United States withdrawing its own nuclear – and eventually also conventional – military power from the Korean Peninsula altogether.

Similarly, there was an apparent misunderstanding about recent North Korean statements by Mr Trump and, especially, his special envoy to North Korea, Stephen Biegun.

North Korea was demanding the removal of most of the important sanctions against it and, in exchange, offered to “dismantle and destroy” its nuclear facility at Yongbyon “and more”.

Several close observers of the conversation were a lot less impressed than the Trump administration was about what “and more” might entail.

There is, let’s face it, no real possibility that North Korea, of all countries, will become the first in history to become a nuclear power and then, under massive pressure, relinquish that independent, decisive deterrent

It seems Pyongyang was indeed only committed to an exchange involving the dropping of sanctions for the decommissioning of Yongbyon.

But that misunderstanding, which appears to be key to the failure of the Hanoi summit, is simply a microcosm of the deeper misunderstandings between Washington and Pyongyang.

There is, let’s face it, no real possibility that North Korea, of all countries, will become the first in history to become a nuclear weapons power and then, under massive pressure, relinquish that independent, decisive deterrent.

What Mr Trump doesn’t seem to understand yet is that what he has overseen in the two summits with Mr Kim is – whether he intended it, or likes it, or not – the effective recognition of North Korea as a full nuclear power.

Can Mr Trump really imagine he can cajole North Korea into forgoing the very capability that gained his obsessive attention in the first place?

There’s no doubt Mr Kim wants to now focus on national economic development. And he may well be willing to eschew most further nuclear and missile refinements to make that happen.

But there’s no reason whatsoever to believe that he may be willing to reverse what North Korea has achieved to protect his own regime, and at so much cost. That project is bound to fail.

Thus far, the ledger is entirely in Mr Kim’s favour. In exchange for steps that are either irrelevant or reversible, his odious regime has gained enormous credibility and international legitimacy.

And Mr Trump continues to lavish inexplicably generous personal affection and praise on Mr Kim, especially in contrast to his often-venomous treatment of democratically elected leaders allied with the United States.

Mr Trump appears to be intoxicated by his own rhetoric about his prowess as a “dealmaker”. But he has painted himself into a corner in this case.

He can either now admit that his curious “bromance” with Mr Kim has been a fool’s errand based on elementary misunderstandings and miscommunication.

Or he can retreat to the White House and let the professionals once again take over and try to repair the damage he’s done and, if possible, build on any progress with Pyongyang he may have made.

The bottom line is this, however: Mr Trump has essentially recognised North Korea as a nuclear power, and engaged with it and Mr Kim as relative equals.

Nothing can really reverse that, since Pyongyang is not going to give up its nuclear weapons. Any sensible US strategy must take that as given.

Lifting sanctions will remain an important goal for North Korea, but between Singapore and Hanoi, Mr Kim has already won a decisive, and probably irreversible, victory over Mr Trump.

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

Updated: March 2, 2019 05:05 PM

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