About a year ago, President Trump was recorded leaning back in a chair, talking through his pursed lips about the possibility of fire and fury being rained down upon North Korea. Last week, in Singapore, that same American president met the Supreme Leader he had spent months trading insults and threats with, and had what was clearly a mutually pleasant and congenial summit. The event has been dismissed as nothing more than ‘Diplotainment’, an agreement without substance that is unlikely to actually lead to North Korea giving up their nuclear weapons.
Is this a fair assessment? I am of two minds. There was little to no preliminary meetings of the sort that normally precede a diplomatic meeting such as this. Months or even years of preparation went into the negotiations that led to Secretary of State Kerry meeting and signing a deal with Iran. The Singapore meeting was organised at a rapid pace and almost entirely at the very top level between press statements from both heads of state. This diplomatic work is important as it ensures such agreements are actual complex agreements between nation states, as opposed to the whims of potentially fickle leaders. The hard work of putting meat to the bones of the agreement will fall to Secretary Pompeo and his staff, who are responsible for trying to get some actual binding commitments to back up the A4 page Trump and Kim produced.
It is of course part of the supreme irony of living in the Trump era that the president has managed to diffuse a crisis that he himself helped to start by lobbing insults and threats directly at a dictator would had recently developed intercontinental ballistic missiles. America have been trying since the end of the Cold War to temper the aggression of North Korea via sticks and carrots, none of which had any effect on stopping them from acquiring The Bomb. So, to give credit to Trump (and I had to force myself to type those words), the very fact he has gotten the leader of North Korea to meet him and at least pretend that he intends to be peaceful is to be commended. That said, and apologies for proving Godwin’s Law, but the same was said of Chamberlain when he returned with from the Munich agreement of 1938.
Why did Trump suddenly turn 180 and call Little Rocket Man a fantastic guy? His short attention span allowed the North Koreans to bamboozle him with their sudden super nice routine that they employed during the Winter Olympics. Trump has a desperate urge to see himself on the news, especially in a positive light, and the chance to be hailed as a peacemaker and perhaps even get one of those Nobel Prizes that his arch-enemy Obama was gifted in 2008. So he would be unlikely to turn up such an opportunity to steal the spotlight for a couple of news cycles. And, if he can actually help San Francisco avoid being obliterated by nuclear fire, then all the better.
From the opposing perspective, there is little real incentive for North Korea to actually surrender their nuclear weapons. There is no better guarantee of security for a government than the possession of a nuke, from both external and internal threats. The reason Pyongyang freaked out when Vice President Pence cited the ‘Libya Model’ as a potential guide is that it brought to mind the images of what happened to Gaddafi, former dictator of Libya who ended up butchered by his own people after a bloody rebellion. Kim could be persuaded to surrender the missile technology recently developed that gives him the ability to strike the territory of the United States, but he will still have the capability to launch short to medium range attacks.
We must wait to see what comes of Pompeo’s follow up meetings over the coming months. This winter, when snow starts falling on the Demilitarised Zone that divides the two Koreas, we should have a clear idea as to how serious Kim is at developing this relationship into something that looks like a lasting peace. And if he gives enough for Trump to spin it as a victory in diplotainment, then the Great Blonde Hope will be placated for another while and unlikely to spark a conflict on the Korean peninsula.