Washington-Pyongyang rapprochement

Published: June 20, 2018 21:01:05 | Updated: June 20, 2018 21:06:40

The exuberance generated by the successful summit between the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jai-in in April inspired US President Donald Trump to have direct engagement with Kim in order to advance the process on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. In a dramatic move the summit was scheduled on June 12 in Singapore. But when John Bolton, President Trump's National Security Advisor, propagated Libyan model for denuclearizing North Korea, Kim paused and questioned the motive of the United States leadership. Trump in a letter addressed to Kim proposed cancellation of the summit and reminded the North Korean leader of the behemoth superiority of US nuclear arsenals.

President Moon felt disconcerted at the collapse of the proposed summit and rushed to Washington to make a last attempt to salvage the meeting between the two most unpredictable leaders. He successfully persuaded Trump not to squander the opportunity to meet with the secluded leader Kim. Moon was convinced that the North Korean leader was determined to uplift his population from perennial poverty. Moon believed that Kim has realized that investment in nuclearization and ending poverty cannot co-exist and has made a clear choice in favour of ending poverty. Trump found rationale in Moon's evaluation of his northern counterpart and agreed to meet Kim in Singapore on the date set earlier.

Normally a summit takes place following weeks of preparations between the officials of two countries, agreed points are elaborated in the joint communique and disagreements are either ironed out or included for future discussions. In this case, there was a different protocol altogether. It was felt that bottom-up approach will not work, so the reverse course was chosen. People will have to wait to find out what has been achieved and whether tension has been defused.

When they met on June 12, Kim called the nuclear disarmament summit with Trump a "big prelude to peace" and vowed, "I am willing to do this." Trump responded, "We will solve this and we will be successful." Both leaders met one on one, joined only by their interpreters, with the aim of establishing a rapport before the formal negotiations began.

After five hours of meeting Trump summed up the outcome as "a very comprehensive agreement with North Korea". The joint communique was, however, very sketchy and outlandish.

In the post-summit press conference, Trump announced that he would cancel the US-South Korean joint military exercises which he described as very 'provocative', a narrative very often used by North Korean officials. The announcement caught both Seoul and Pentagon by surprise. KCNA, North Korea's official news agency, claimed, on the other hand, that Trump had conceded to Kim's demands to suspend US-South Korea military exercises. The US officials also maintained that no concession will be granted until North Korea makes significant progress on dismantling its nuclear programme. The cancellation of joint military exercise contradicts official explanation.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Seoul that "questions about North Korean denuclearization and its irreversibility - neither of which was mentioned in the document - were insulting and ridiculous and frankly ludicrous." But Trump said, "We save a fortune by not doing war games, as long as we are negotiating in good faith - which both sides are." He called his meeting with Kim "an interesting and very positive experience."

The tracking and repatriation of the remains of American soldiers killed and captured during the Korean War, which the joint communiqué mentions, will be a time consuming exercise. More than 35,000 American soldiers were killed in Korea and the remains of 5,300 still unaccounted for north of demilitarized zone, buried in cemeteries, former labour camps and battle fields. The joint US-North Korean search teams repatriated 229 sets of remains from 1990 to 2005. But the search was suspended in 2005 as diplomatic relations deteriorated. The repatriation of remains is a priority for the people of South Korea as well. President Moon expressed confidence that Pyongyang might allow the search teams to start recovering the remains of troops from the demilitarized zone. More than 120,000 South Korean soldiers who fought in the war are unaccounted for, many thought to be lost in North Korean territory.

It remains unclear when and to what extent the sanctions on North Korea would be eased. Experts argued that rounds of economic sanctions forced Pyongyang to return to negotiating table and North Korean leader must have raised the issue at the summit. But Mike Pompeo declared in Seoul that sanctions would be lifted only after complete denuclearization. The joint communique remained silent on it. China is gravely concerned about continued sanction and eager to resume trade with North Korea in order not to let North Korean economy fall flat. In a statement Beijing said, "China has consistently held that sanctions are not the goal in themselves. The Security Council's actions should support and conform to the efforts of current diplomatic talks toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, and promote a political solution." It seems very unlikely that North Korea will have patience to wait for complete denuclearization in order to get the sanctions lifted.

Since the joint communique is unexpectedly short in narrative and shorter in substance, diplomatic observers are left to draw different conclusions. A few commentators have remonstrated that the big winner of the Singapore summit was China. China wants stability in Korean Peninsula to an extent that the North does not get too close to Washington but secures enough economic and political leverage to improve its social and economic infrastructure, reduce poverty and establish working relations with its neighbours. China will welcome unification of North and South Korea, a distant possibility, but will not prefer unified Korea turning too friendly with Washington and hostile to Beijing.

Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.



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