Sun | Sep 23, 2018

Editorial | Trump’s Singapore spectacle

Published:Wednesday | June 13, 2018 | 12:00 AM

The world is a little less tense and a step further back from the brink of catastrophe. Kim Jong-Un, the North Korea leader, in the wake of his summit with Donald Trump, isn't, at least for now, wagging a nervous finger over his nuclear buttons.

That is a good thing. But it oughtn't, as Mr Trump, the bloviating American president, characteristically been doing, to be oversold. For Chairman Kim still has his nuclear arsenal and there is nothing to suggest, despite the North Korean's leaders declared "firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula", that he will be rid of them anytime soon.

Indeed, no one knows, including the principals in the Singapore summit, perhaps, what the term denuclearisation means. Either party, up to now, has its own interpretation of the word.

In that event, if anyone has left Singapore a winner it is Chairman Kim and his sponsors, China, which, at least in the short term, has gained a significant geopolitical advantage. Except that Mr Trump, for whom a self-aggrandising show is what is important, can probably claim victory in the pomp, circumstance and historic nature of the summit, in the sense that there was never before a meeting between a North Korean leader and a sitting US president.

 

Denuclearisation

 

More substantively, though, Kim Jong-Un is not only the acknowledged leader for a nuclear-armed country, but now has legitimacy as a global player with whom the United States, through its president, negotiates face to face. He may, at some point, acquiesce to calls for some form of denuclearisation, but when and how no one knows.

In the meantime, China will have the advantage, at least over the medium term, of having a politically more stable partner on its border to provide a buffer against a perceived American client, as well as, possibly, given Mr Trump's undertaking to end annual "war games" with South Korea, of a neighbourhood without what it deems to be the provocative presence of US military power. It can, therefore, proceed to advance, without having to glance too much over its shoulders, its economic and other interests in East Asia

It is little wonder, therefore, that in the immediate aftermath of the summit, Beijing signalled that it was probably time to end United Nations sanctions on North Korea, for which China accounts to upwards of 80 per cent of its trade and, therefore, a crucial economic lifeline.

 

Inverted Approach

 

The insubstantial outcome, from the American perspective, of the Singapore summit is the result of two factors: an inverted approach to critical diplomacy; and, second, Mr Trump's manic efforts to outdo and dismantle things done by his predecessors, especially Barack Obama, America's first black president.

Mr Trump tore up Mr Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, under which Tehran dismantled its bomb-development programme, limited work in nuclear fission to anything that could proceed to bomb-making standard for at least 15-years, and committed to keep nuclear facilities open to inspection for at least 15 years. Something better than this deal would have had to be the basis for any agreement the Trump administration struck with North Korea.

That, up to now, isn't the case. Washington's initial insistence of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation was steadily walked back by Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, and President Trump, for whom holding a summit was important. Normally, such meetings are preceded by negotiations between officials who clarify details for their bosses to formalise. This approach was turned on its head.

The upshot: President Trump and Chairman Kim agreed to negotiate.