Trump’s blunder on North Korea becoming clearer

opinion January 17, 2019 01:00

By The Nation

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There was doubt from the start that the Singapore summit achieved anything, and Kim indeed still has his nuclear capabilities

Two years into his four-year term, having gone from brash talk about halting North Korea’s nuclear threat – with force if necessary – to praising Kim Jong-un after they eventually met face to face, United States President Donald Trump is back where he was at the beginning of the discussion.

Their showboat summit in Singapore was indeed historic, being the first meeting between sitting leaders of their nations, but it appears to have produced nothing of historic value. Its chief result, as authorities around the globe fretted would happen from the outset, was to give Kim the sheen of international respectability and legitimacy – and a chance to dither further about halting North Korea’s nuclear development.

Since no precise promises were made at the summit, only vague statements of intent, Kim has not been required to yield a single weapon, and he will not do so until the sanctions that the international community imposed on his regime are lifted. Trump, having claimed soon after the meeting that North Korea no longer posed a nuclear threat, has ended up looking like the deceitful TV celebrity in statesman’s clothing that he is. As head of the world’s most powerful nation and with the best advisers on foreign policy and military affairs willing to help guide his hand, Trump could have and certainly should have achieved far more. But the unfortunate sentiment that “Trump will always be Trump” appears accurate (so far as it goes) and there is nothing to be done about him until the American electorate goes again to the polls on November 3, 2020.

Trump spoke affectionately post-summit about Kim, demeaned past presidents for failing to remove the nuclear threat on the Korean Peninsula, and belittled or insulted long-standing treaty allies, baffling one and all – including Kim, no doubt, though his confusion would have been lightened by glee. Adding to the absurdity was the endorsement Trump’s words and deeds earned from US far-right conservatives.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that Trump had made significant progress with Pyongyang, as evidenced by a statement in the joint communique the two leaders signed in which North Korea agreed to denuclearisation. Ask any Thai reporter about such documents emanating from ministerial meetings and leaders’ summits and you’re likely to hear the phrase kradad chet tood, which means “toilet paper”. That at least assigns them some value, but in fact they are worthless unless goals are pursued in earnest and requirements are enforced. There was nothing legally binding about the paper signed by the US and North Korea.

The Trump administration is now in a far worse position to address Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme in a meaningful way. Kim got what he wanted out of the summit, global trust in Washington is diminished, and US Republicans lost control of Congress. Specialists monitoring North Korea have said it is importing oil by sea in violation of UN sanctions, even with US-led forces on alert for the clandestine practice. If American-led diplomacy or military surveillance can’t plug the holes in North Korean intransigence, Trump will have to consider reapplying maximum pressure and must admit his personal initiative accomplished nothing.

He might even have to accept North Korea as a fellow member of the club of nuclear-armed states. In this there ought to be a lesson in humility for him, but that could be too much to expect.