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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Trump faces biggest test in meeting with Kim Jong-un

In this region and elsewhere, Mr Trump’s deal-making has delivered mixed results

A man reads a copy of the Munhwa Ilbo newspaper featuring U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the front page in Seoul, South Korea. Jean Chung / Bloomberg
A man reads a copy of the Munhwa Ilbo newspaper featuring U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the front page in Seoul, South Korea. Jean Chung / Bloomberg

The news that US President Donald Trump will meet North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un within weeks has sparked surprise, scepticism and delight in equal measure. “Kim Jong-un talked about denuclearisation with South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time,” tweeted Mr Trump. It follows months of exacting sanctions and persistent threats of military and economic aggression from Mr Trump himself. For some, including South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Mr Trump deserves credit for thawing relations. It seems his aggression has, at the very least, put a temporary end to nuclear tests. Others fear Mr Trump, relatively new to international diplomacy, is being played.

Mr Kim is often characterised as a hysterical madman. Nevertheless, his intentions are clear: the preservation of his regime and global relevance, through a nuclear deterrent. Full denuclearisation therefore remains doubtful. Meeting a US president would afford Mr Kim the status of a global player. It emerged after former President Bill Clinton’s visit to Pyongyang in 2009 that Mr Kim's predecessor pressed hard for an audience with President Barack Obama. The famous “International Friendship Exhibition” in North Korea – filled with tens of thousands of “gifts” from foreign dignitaries – illuminates Pyongyang’s thirst for international recognition.

US policy has long held that Pyongyang must disarm before it is rewarded with a high-level meeting, sparking concern that Mr Trump has conceded too easily. Mr Trump, a self-professed master negotiator, feels he can win major concessions. But elsewhere, notably in this region, his deal-making has delivered mixed results. There are other concerns as well. Mr Trump lacks an ambassador to Seoul and a US Special Representative for North Korean policy. There is also legitimate concern Mr Trump will go “off-script” during the meeting.

Nonetheless, a breakthrough is not impossible. Previous administrations have consistently failed to curtail Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, but the meeting has wide international support. Pyongyang’s charm-offensive at last month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea has not worn off, as many predicted. Currently its athletes are competing in the Winter Paralympics. But optimism should be tempered with realism. Embattled at home and desperate for positive headlines, this is Mr Trump’s biggest test so far. Suddenly the world feels slightly safer. How long for will become clear when two of the world’s most unconventional leaders sit down together in the coming weeks.