‘A true leader always keeps an element of surprise up his sleeve, which others cannot grasp but which keeps his public excited and breathless.’ This quote by former French president Charles de Gaulle could well be attributed to President Donald Trump. Whether one is an admirer or detractor of Trump there is n0 denying that his brand of politics has shaken up the U.S. public at home and the world at large.
Even if one is an admirer one has to concede that the U.S. President’s policies have not endeared him to the majority of the world so far. The sanctions on Iran, the growing pressure on China regarding trade tariffs, the abrupt withdrawal from international treaties, the relentless bid to construct a wall despite Mexican and global outrage, Trump is not someone that has been seen as a ‘statesman’ worldwide.
The U.S. president has been trying to change this image and the issue that he has chosen to do this on is North Korea. As the summit meeting in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gets underway, one cannot help but reflect on the long rope that President Trump has been willing to give the North Korean leader.
Despite the ratcheting up of rhetoric by North Korea before the first summit in Singapore last year and despite the fact that according to the U.N. North Korea had done little to dismantle its nuclear missile program – an expected precondition for the summit talks – the U.S. president has soldiered on even though he probably realises now that the outcome may be less positive then he had initially hoped for. Asked about his expectations, he told reporters, ‘We’re in no rush whatsoever…as long as there’s no testing, I’m in no rush.’ Such a statement, which came just before this summit, spoke volumes.
The question that must be asked here is why Trump has chosen to engage with Kim to the extent that he has been willing to grant him summit meetings — the first ever between a North Korean leader and a sitting U.S. president. Doing so has added a stamp of legitimacy to Kim who earlier was largely shunned as a ‘pariah’ by world leaders (with the exception of China), without really forcing him to make major concessions.
Instead, Trump’s eagerness to go ahead with the summit has allowed Kim to push up the rhetoric. Kim’s warning of a food crisis in his country just before the summit has got media coverage worldwide and created a perception of the U.S.-led world sanctions as being ‘unreasonable’ and the U.S. as a ‘bully’. Going into this summit then it is the North Korean leader who holds the upper hand.
The reason for Kim’s victory is simple; it is the U.S. president’s desire to be seen as a statesman. This desire only seems to be growing. Reports of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe being forced to nominate the U.S. President for a Nobel Peace Prize suggests as much. Such a desire would also explain Trump’s bid to stay the course with North Korea and this is an action that can come with costs. There are already fears that an increasingly belligerent Kim threatens the security of the peninsula and growing concessions by the U.S. president has increased them.
Such fears are not unfounded. The U.S.’s proposals to establish liaison offices in the capitals of the two nations and a bid to declare a formal end to the Korean War are being put forward without Kim promising anything concrete in return. Instead, all he has insisted on so far is that international sanctions against his country be lifted.
If Trump and Kim do not agree upon a nuclear disarmament deal this will raise concerns among South Korea. Protests had risen against South Korean President Moon Jae-in for over-selling North Korea’s desire to denuclearise in the run-up to the Singapore summit and this time round Moon is reportedly less enthusiastic. In fact, the push for this summit in Vietnam is believed to have come entirely from Trump himself. Seoul, on the other hand, has reason to be worried. The U.S. has 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea and there are fears that Trump may remove them in response to Kim’s demands.
There are other fallouts too. The fact, that Trump is so eager for the summit suggests to Pyongyang the best course of action is to do nothing with anyone else. Already, this is happening. Offers of a summit meeting by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, over the issue of Japan hostages being abducted by North Korea, has so far fallen on deaf ears. Even the US Special Representative to North Korea Stephen Biegun is now reportedly being ignored. Biegun whose job it is to get ‘concrete deliverables’ from Pyongyang now has his hands tied because North Korea has realised the Trump adminstration’s eagerness and insist on only dealing with the US president directly. The result, there is nothing to convince Pyongang to give up its belligerent attitude. On the contrary, they have realised that belligerence pays. This sets a bad precedent for other rogue nations.
There is every possibility that such fears are unfounded and that a historic deal could be reached between the US president and the North Korean leader at the summit. But one can’t help but wonder if such a deal could come at too high a cost. If this is so, Trump’s desperate desire to be a statesman will be in a large part to blame.