• Thursday 22nd August 2019

Neither [Cold] War Nor Peace: Détente in East Asia?

  • Published on: April 4, 2018

    North Korea’s Kim Jong Un’s secret and surprise visit to Beijing was a diplomatic masterstroke, since it demolished in one fell swoop the mistaken impression among foreign policy pundits that the inter-connected negotiations among North and South Korea and the United States was taking place to the exclusion of the regional and world power China. It has bought the reclusive regime – often designated ‘the Hermit Kingdom’ – valuable time and has help sow the seeds of doubt over who would be at fault if talks with the United States collapsed. It was also a firm recognition that the only way of ensuring that the US-North Korean summit has some modicum of success was to ensure that China was not an idle spectator, but an active participant. It was also essential that the China and the US acting in tandem should offer Kim such a proposal(s) that he cannot afford to refuse.
    Writing in the “Financial Times”, Philip Stephens underlines: “Both nations want Mr Kim to give up the bomb. Mr Trump wields the military might. And Pyongyang is almost totally reliant on Beijing for supplies of energy and food. China, though, is more fearful of regime collapse – with a reunified Korea extending US influence up to the Chinese border [the Yalu river of the Korean War infamy] – than it is unnerved by the nukes. For his part, Mr. Kim wants above all to remain in power.” The magic formula is thus: nuclear weapons for regime preservation. Thus, Stephens continues: “If there is a way through the tangle,…it resides in an Sino-American agreement that jointly underwrites the territorial integrity of North Korea and, awful though it is to contemplate, the security of Mr. Kim’s regime. This would be in effect the [peace] treaty that was never signed at the end of the Korean war. And, with the joint backing of Beijing and Washington, the offer could be made to Mr. Kim in a manner such as he could not refuse.”
    The grave danger is that US President Donald J. Trump, the “Twitter-in-Chief” is overly optimistic. Responding to news of Kim’s visit to Beijing, Trump tweeted: “For years and through many administrations, everyone said that peace and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was not even a small possibility. Now there is a good chance that Kim Jong Un will do what is right for his people and for humanity.” However, there are grave dangers of unrealistic expectations in diplomacy with North Korea. The ‘denuclearization of the Korean peninsula’ remains a very small possibility, but there is every likelihood that Trump may mistake hard-nosed North Korean rhetoric for a meaningful transformation in their hard-line posture. North Korean leaders have talked about ‘denuclearization’ time and again, but it is not at all clear what they actually mean by it, and also the conditions they want fulfilled. This time around it is no different.
    In fact, there are conflicting demands and expectations as to what ‘denuclearization’ entails and the process of achieving it. Kim’s declared promise to denuclearize is not new and is questionable whether it confirms to the US perception. The North has even claimed that it is ready to abandon its nuclear arsenal if the US evacuates its troops from South Korea and terminates its security alliance (including the ‘nuclear umbrella’) with it. Kim was very generous and conceded that the current joint US-South Korean military exercises could take place. Nearly 12,000 U.S. troops will join around 300,000 South Korean soldiers for the joint exercises, the largest annual ‘war games’ between the two nations. Kim has shown himself very conciliatory. He also attended a gala music concert in Pyongyang staged by visiting South Korean artistes. According to China Xinhua News, Kim was quite reasonable when he outlined a sustained and reciprocal exchange of issues on tensions reductions: ‘The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.’ As of now, the US standpoint consists of demanding ‘the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling’ of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ‘the facilities’ used to build those weapons ‘as soon as possible’.
    This stance is diametrically opposed to Pyongyang’s and the divergent interpretations threaten to wreck the potential summit, before it has even started. Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists said: “As we approach the summits [Kim-Moon & Kim-Trump], conceptions of denuclearization seem to be diverging rather than converging.” The Trump administration must approach the meeting as ‘work in progress’ and denuclearization as a distant prospect and not ‘having turned the screws, now make the deal.’ The question is whether Trump and his new National Security Adviser are amenable to long drawn-out negotiations and an attitude of intelligent give-and-take.
    But unfortunately, to many observers, the Trump White House appears dangerously dysfunctional. Theodore B. Olson, a Republican former solicitor general, declined to join Trump’s legal team in the Russia investigation [interference in the 2016 presidential election]. Recently, he aired his opinion on MSNBC: “I think everybody would agree this is turmoil, it’s chaos, it’s confusion, it’s not good for anything . . . of course government is not clean or orderly – ever. But this seems to be beyond normal.” Many senior aides who spent several hours a day with the president and were considered stabilizing forces have left. One
    Trump confidant said: “This is now a president a little bit alone, isolated and without any moderating influences . . . a president who is being encouraged and goaded on by people around him . . . It really is a president unhinged.” According to “The Washington Post”, “Trump is making hasty decisions that jolt markets and shock leaders and experts – including those of his own staff.” So much so that even a passionate supporter and right-wing rabble-rouser like Ann Coulter has voiced her displeasure in public: He’s a “shallow, lazy ignoramus”.
    However, Trump together with Mike Pompeo (currently director of the CIA) who is to replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, and firebrand John Bolton, the incoming national security adviser are known to be birds of a feather. Bolton’s appointment, according to the US “Council on Foreign Relations” marks the definitive triumph of the ‘nationalists’ over the ‘globalists’ in Trump’s administration: “ . . . the president has selected the nation’s premier champion of a narrow, defensive, and ultimately self-defeating approach to the U.S. role in the world.”Furthermore, his inveterate skepticism of multilateral cooperation and opposition to multilateral treaties, particularly those related to arms control [which exactly reflect those of Trump himself] does not bode well: “Bolton’s sovereigntist critique of internationalism [he has been entitled the ‘Sovereignty Warrior’] is misguided and dangerous . . . it ignores both the heavy burdens and ultimate futility going it alone in a globalized world.”


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