Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister in the mid-1960s coined a phrase,” a week is a long time in politics.” With the unfolding USA President Donald J. Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un teeter-totter we are learning, a day is a very long time in politics. While we may argue as to who really is in control and who is playing second fiddle, the reality is both need this meeting for similar and not so similar reasons. Let us then attempt to understand why this summit is important for each of them.
What is in it for Kim Jong-un?
Jong-un needs the summit at three fundamental levels immanent in personal, regional and national. He also needs it in that sequence. Both Jong-un and Trump are super-large personalities at least in their own assessments, hence the national or global contexts is often sacrificed at the altar of the personal. Jong-un has already secured from Trump and Moon Jae-in the designation that he enjoys of ‘Supreme Leader’. This is major for Jon-un. Jong-un, therefore, needs the summit because it extends to him at a personal level legitimacy, a space he has never had in a global stage setting. To secure a seat opposite the Washington President in one-on-one talks for Jong-un provides affords him a claim on history, seldom attained since North and South Korea were split by USA and USSR in 1945 ending the Japanese rule. Jong-un is often laughed at as crazy.
At a secondary level or at national and regional interest level, the summit somehow simultaneously recrafts the peddled narrative of a pariah state, into a recognised sovereign state in full view of the globe with the leader of the free world endorsing this new North Korea reality. It also confirms beyond all doubt that the USA and by extension the world acknowledges North Korea as a nuclear force and not to be scoffed at, instead rather taken seriously in both regional and global settings.
Jong-un also is wise enough to have his eye on the regional interest and he has in this last five months done much in redrawing the regional power equations.
Jong-un clearly also want to make sure North Korea is not attacked, hence he is conscious to sell himself to his regional context as sincere and serious enough. His bargaining tool remains his nuclear capacity, he knows this is the solitary issue constituting the essential interest for the USA. It is an excellent bargaining tool and it has learnt from the Libyan experience what not to do. North Korea has worked long on its capability to have certain weaponry is not in any sense remotely committed to giving up its nuclear capacity.
Jong-un’s strategy includes rendering the USA in the Korean Peninsula as an awkward player.
North Korea’s recent behaviour towards South Korea with an array of meetings, shows many goodwill gestures. These include meeting President Moon Ja-in in crossing the demilitarized zone and stepping into South Korea, declaring its intentions to work to seize the war between the nations. In addition, the releasing of the three American hostages, blowing up some tunnels.
What is in it for Trump?
For Trump having the summit take place, is an enormous moment increasingly becoming a must.
While for both Trump and Jong-un its personal, the difference is Trump appears to conflate the personal for the national and the global.
Trump according to South Korea is duly credited for his crucial role in the peace agreement between Seoul and Pyongyang and on the basis of this, deserves according to his supporters the ‘Nobel peace’ prize.
Having the meeting take place, is also crucial for Trump’s administration since it is perhaps only positive initiative that contrasts a dysfunctional grossly errant and haphazard global diplomacy footprint. When we say the personal weighs heavier for Trump, it is in the understanding of claims of ‘the first president to attain the peaceful engagement in the Korean Peninsula.’ It makes in his supporters eyes a case for the coveted Nobel Peace Prize.
We will remember that the 45th President of the USA, on many occasions earned the wrath of the world including long-standing allies of the USA, whom he treated with naked insensitivity if not insult. Besides insulting Mexico, Britain, France, Germany, Cuba, African Countries, Russia (expelling diplomats) and accusing China with the threat of ill-considered trade war, Trump increasingly is ostracizing the USA from a globe.
He recently pulled out of the Iran deal against the better advice of long-standing USA allies. As part of his USA withdrawal, he fired a salvo of threats to all those who intend continuing doing business with Iran to expect severe sanctions from the USA.
We saw again how Trump made his personal interest count more than the national and global when he last month also in an unprecedented actioned the moving of the USA embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. With this, he defied the efforts of a two-nation state intention and further polarised the Middle-East. Considering all these what makes for incoherent, and unsustainable policy change decisions on the part of the 45th President, taking place in less than ninety days, details a story of a diplomacy nightmare on the part of Trump.
Not one to easily concede defeat, or simply give up, he is likely to push through with the summit, as we already see with Moon Ja-in’s visit to Pyongyang this past Sunday.
While both Trump and Jong-un cannot be considered stupid, it is a matter of who has the edge and strange enough the Supreme Leader of North Korea appears to have a better set of cards to play in a political pendulum that continues to shift by the hour.
What are the assumptions?
The first assumption and often peddled sophism is that Jong-un asked for a meeting. We know that Trump during his campaign for high office expressed the hope to have talks with Jong-un, he, therefore, volunteered meetings. To claim it only a Jong-un request is an assumption.
The second aspect is the that of denuclearisation, it is simply a gross assumption that between the Donald J Trump of the USA and Kim Jong-un of North Korea there is a common understanding on what makes for denuclearization. It is precisely this fundamental misconception on what is on the table that, which may have been assisted had there been an upfront process of extensive engagement and not the knee-jerk, shooting from the hip, Trump style.
Trump is aware that North Korea has nowhere surrendered its nuclear capacities hence his adoption of questionable tactics of playing both good and bad guy political game. This tactic, on one hand, seeks to solicit Jong-un with incentives and promises of North Korean economic prosperity should he comply while on the other hand, equally spitting threats of obliteration should North Korea not comply.
So far Jong-un appears to have made many concessions, while many may consider him selling out or proving desperate it must be noted these are all soft concessions, enough to show good faith. He has nowhere committed to doing what Trump hopes to get should they meet on June 12.
Jong-un seems to be having the edge in this teeter-totter because Trump wants this meeting for his own legacy in his supporters’ demand of Nobel Peace Prize, after all, Obama got a Nobel Peace Prize and he is not going to be undone by his predecessor.
In conclusion, the summit in all likelihood will happen and it will happen in Seoul on June 12. We may also see attempts to rectify the much-needed upfront-facilitation between officials. We cannot accept it will achieve denuclearisation as understood by Trump.