BY SHASHI MALLA
• Trump Steps into North Korea
In a historical first, US President Donald Trump became the first sitting head-of-state to step into North Korean soil. Two other US presidents have visited the ‘hermit kingdom’ – Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — to meet the grandfather and father of the present leader Kim Jong Un, but after completing their terms of office. Trump, who enjoys pomp and show and being in the limelight, has the singular distinction of visiting while still in office.
Shortly after becoming the only sitting US president to set foot inside North Korea, Trump brought Kim back over the “Military Demarcation Line” (as the inner-Korean border is officially known) for a 50-minutes impromptu meeting. Here, the two sides agreed to re-start working-level talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons – a decades-long headache for generations of US administrations.
As they sat down for discussions, Kim said their “handshake of peace” in the location (the De-Militarized Zone/DMZ) that was “the symbol of the division of north and south” showed that “we are willing to put the past behind us.” Trump himself gushed: “It’s a great day for the world and it’s an honor for me to be here.” Trump also said he had invited the young leader to the White House “anytime he wants to do it” – too precipitous, and too much, too soon, with bilateral negotiations also at an historical deadlock.
Trump and Kim’s first summit last year took place in Singapore in a blaze of publicity, but produced only a vaguely-worded pledge about ‘denuclearization’. It became crassly clear that the US side was ill-prepared and had not done their homework.
Trump rushed to a second summit this February in Hanoi, Vietnam, firmly in the belief that US sanctions had made Kim soft enough and amenable to US demands. Again, Trump made the fatal mistake of being unable to distinguish between the wheeling and dealing in real estate and high-stakes state diplomacy. The meeting was aborted without any agreement at all for the long-elusive nuclear agreement.
Since then contact between the two sides had been low-key and minimal. Trump was perhaps inspired by Xi Jinping’s recent state visit to Pyongyang and after reaching a breakthrough in the US-China trade war on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Osaka, Japan and on a visit to South Korea took the unlikely initiative to invite Kim to the DMZ via twitter. This did pay off for the impromptu meeting at least, but as the “Washington Post” wrote astutely, it wasn’t strategy, but merely a ‘photo op’.
The Asia analyst David Kim of the Stimson Centre said that the significance of the meeting in the no-man’s land [the heavily fortified DMZ] often referred to as the world’s last Cold War frontier was “obvious”. The meeting had the “potential to kick-start stalled negotiations”, but added that working level discussions would be crucial: “What we need is substance, not theatrics.” (AFP)
Another expert Ms. Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst now with the RAND Corporation, said the North’s “gravitational force has pulled Trump across the DMZ”, calling it an “alluring elixir of wile, threatening rhetoric, stalling and dangling of the remote possibility of resuming dialogue.”
• U.S.–Iran Confrontation not yet Overcome
In spite of the fact that US President Donald Trump called off a military attack against Iran [as retaliation that Iran downed a US spy drone in the Gulf of Oman] at the last minute, the military confrontation in the Persian Gulf –Strait of Hormuz—Gulf of Oman region is far from over. Trump had been busy the last week attending the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan and trying to get a hold on the trade war with China [which he himself had unleashed] and also trying to defuse the ‘de-nuclearization’ imbroglio with North Korea.
US President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have not stopped trading taunts and threats and as a result, tensions between the two countries have reached an all-time high. These tense rhetorical exchanges have brought them closer to accidental war.
It is easily forgotten that the US and Iran have been at loggerheads since four decades, but at no point has the acute possibility of their intense antagonism escalating into armed confrontation been greater as of now. Since months now, the two sides have been following a familiar tactic of tit for tat and mutually reinforcing each other’s spiraling hostile intent.
The U.S. has been steadily strengthening its military presence in the region – the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in the northern Arabian Sea, and Trump with his offensive of “maximum pressure” – which can only be perceived by Iran as an attempt to isolate and confine it. It is absolutely natural that Iran will attempt to break out of this unnatural and artificial confinement in its very own region. Whether we like it or not, Iran is after all the most powerful country in the region. In contrast, the U.S. is perceived as an external power, not only by Iran!
Iran has, in fact, reacted forcefully, but remaining below the level of open warfare. President Rouhani even calledthe White House “mentally disabled” and Trump reacted angrily by threatening to ‘obliterate’ parts of Iran. This was similar to “fire and fury” rhetoric/playbook he used against North Korea.
Even after Trump had called off a military attack against Iran in the last minutes, his national security adviser – and the most hawkish of his administration – in a speech in Jerusalem ranted against America’s perceived arch-enemy. He claimed that Iran was still attempting to possess a nuclear weapon [erroneously, just as he had falsely insisted in 2003 that Saddam Hussein of Iraq had weapons of mass destruction/WMD, which tragically led to America’s ill-fated second Iraq war], and was also arming America’s enemies [he did not elaborate].
Bolton even thundered that no one should “mistake U.S. prudence and discretion for weakness”, adding that his country’s military was “rebuilt, new and ready to go.” He gave the impression that he was the ‘real’ US commander-in-chief and was calling the shots! Thus, according to “Deutsche Welle” [DW/the German state TV channel] : “A volatile mix of threats, provocations and ultimatums is brewing in the region.”
Iran is continuing to demonstrate defiance against the US’s “unprecedented pressure”. The “International Atomic Energy Agency” (IAEA/Vienna) confirmed this Monday that Iran had exceeded the limit the international, multi-lateral atomic agreement had imposed on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium [but only by two kilogrammes]. (AFP)
A leading Iran expert, NargesBajoghli has convincingly argued that Trump’s Iran strategy is bound to fail, because the current US administration fails to understand the internal thinking of the very complicated Iranian regime, and especially that of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (International NYT, July 2, 2019).
• Winds of Change in Turkey?
The opposition candidate for mayor of Istanbul, EkremImamoglu celebrated a landmark win – by an overwhelming margin — in a closely watched repeat local election. After he had won the first mayoral election, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan put the electoral commission under pressure to have the vote repeated. Now, “the new mayor’s second victory heralds the arrival of a great democratic hope for Turkey – and perhaps even the beginning of the end of the Erdogan era.” (DW)
Imamoglu has become popular all over Istanbul, even in prime conservative districts previously supportive of Erdogan’s Justice& Development Party (“AKP”). His rallying cry “All will be good” has swept from Istanbul to all of Turkey, and he is celebrated like a savior. He is even touted as a future president of the republic.
The first time around, EkremImamoglu, 49, achieved a majority of nearly 14,000 votes ahead of the AKP candidate BinaliYildrim. The second time, he increased his dominance by more than 800,000 votes, a feat rarely achieved by any other politician. But there is more at stake than just governing Istanbul, the social, economic and cultural centre of the vast country, astride two continents. Erdogan himself said: “The person who governs Istanbul, governs Turkey”, and observers are clear that from now on, Erdogan will be fighting for his political survival.
Erdogan himself started off his political career as mayor of Istanbul, a cosmopolitan city of 15 million people, and made a huge success of it. Imamoglu will not only have to repeat this, but also aim at a more favorable outcome in and beyond Istanbul. His “Republican People’s Party” (“CHP”) will namely soon be governing well beyond Istanbul. In the March local elections, the CHP won four of the five largest cities, including the capital Ankara. According to the Istanbul think tank “Edam”, the CHP is now governing in areas responsible for over two-thirds of the Turkish economy.
Under Erdogan, the Turkish economy is currently not in good shape. He has championed extravagant infrastructure projects and siphoned off millions of euros as donations to Islamic foundations. He has also been dogged by accusations of corruption and nepotism in high places. Imamoglu, who has studied business administration, has said that “the system of waste” is over.
He has also transformed the image of the CHP, the party of modern Turkey’s founding father, Kemal Ataturk, from that of elitist and distant to that of down-to-earth and caring. Imamoglu now has the image of the underdog, a role Erdogan previously exploited with great success. On the one hand, the opposition is greatly reinvigorated. And on the other, Erdogan is becoming more controversial within his own party and is no longer ‘master of all he surveys’. There is even talk that his party may split. However, Erdogan is still holding on to his ‘strongman’ profile and insisting that he stands between order and chaos, i.e. ‘after him, the deluge’[!]
• US & China Reach Trade War Truce
The US and China have tentatively agreed to another truce in their trade war and to resume negotiations aimed at resolving the multifaceted dispute. The deal was struck when Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump met on the sidelines at the ‘Group of 20’ leaders summit in Osaka, Japan. This would avert Washington’s threat to impose another round of tariffs on an additional US Dollar $ 300 billion of Chinese imports.
It has been reported that Xi resolutely held off on confirming his meeting with Trump until Washington agreed to delay the threatened punitive tariffs on virtually all of China’s shipments to the United States.
In a surprise move, President Trump also revealed that US companies would be allowed to resume sales to Huawei, effectively ending the ban on trading with the Chinese tech giant. Surprisingly [or otherwise] before setting out for Osaka, Trump had alleged without rhyme or reason that China’s economy was going “down the tubes”.
Now, trade negotiations between the world’s top two economies were right “back on track” and the world can breathe a sigh of relief – at least for the time being.
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]