The US announced last week that it had pulled out of the scheduled presidential summit with North Korea. It subsequently left the door slightly ajar, saying that the meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un could still happen.
The sudden decision to cancel and then to leave the summit up in the air came as no less a surprise to analysts and observers than the decision to convene it. The planned summit plus the agreement to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons led observers to draw a comparison — a valid one — with Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing and meeting with Mao Tse-tung in the early 1970s.
Until that point, it seemed inconceivable that the Chinese leader could meet with a US president who had built his political reputation on a hardline anti-communist stance.
But the summit between the far-right leader from the West and the far-left leader from the East did take place, paving the way to the era of international detente, one China, and a complicated three-way relationship between Washington, Beijing and Moscow at a time when leadership of the international communism movement was split between China and Russia.
As was the case in the past, the path to a summit, today, led through mutual entrenchment, sabre rattling and vitriol, political and diplomatic jockeying, nuclear and missile tests, and US naval movements.
At one point, political analysts had begun to draw up possible nuclear war scenarios. The general thinking at the time was that the fate of the world rested in the hands of two leaders reputed for their impetuosity and lack of clarity as they steered the world to the precipice.
Yet, they set a date for a summit meeting, 12 June, in Singapore, the tiny city-state that woke up one morning to find that it was about to become one of the most important places in the universe.
We have previously discussed, in this column, how South Korea, fearful of a war for which it, alone, would have to pay the price, and China, which played a pivotal role in persuading Kim to declare his readiness to relinquish his nuclear weapons, were instrumental in paving the way for the summit.
Naturally, there were thousands of other details. Would the dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear programme mean that the whole Korean peninsula would become a nuclear-free zone, eliminating the justification for the presence of US forces in South Korea, or at least for the US’s nearby naval bases which are armed with nuclear weapons? If Pyongyang gives up its most effective weapon, will the US-South Korean joint manoeuvres programme end? In general, what will North Korea get in return for relinquishing nuclear weapons?
The foregoing questions and more would certainly have been brought up in talks between the North Korean and US negotiating teams, with or without a South Korean presence, while China played the crucial mediating role. Were they resolved? It was clear that many had been, if not resolved, at least addressed during Mike Pompeo’s visits to Pyongyang, which occurred twice, once in his capacity as CIA director and then in his capacity as US secretary of state.
Regardless of the details, the forthcoming summit had raised hopes that the Korean war had finally reached an end and that a peace treaty would be signed.
Then, Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, announced that the “Libyan model” would serve as a guideline for US talks with North Korea. Suddenly, the summit was cast into doubt and the diplomatic game seemed to enter a dead end.
The general belief was that, to Pyongyang, the “Libyan model” stood for total capitulation: Libya had given up its arms and intelligence while gaining nothing in return except for the end to the Lockerbie crisis.
Moreover, even after all the Libyan concessions, US troops led the NATO invasion of Libya, which culminated in the killing of Gaddafi. This is hardly what the North Koreans had in mind when they embarked upon diplomatic and political avenues toward peace.
So, tensions erupted again. Kim saw the “Libyan model” as a manoeuvre to eliminate North Korea as it defines itself with its hereditary rule and communist system.
His country would not become, as he had envisioned, another “Vietnam” or “China”, which is to say, a regime that survives intact with its system of government even if it agrees to certain terms in order to engage in an extensive modernisation process. In short, he feared a huge scam and all the confidence that had been built up over previous months had vanished. A summit seemed pointless.
Still, I believe that the US and North Korea have embarked on a path that they cannot back out of easily, even if the dates of the summit are no longer sacred and can be postponed.
Certainly, war is no longer an option and they are unlikely to forfeit much of what has already been accomplished in the detailed negotiations.
In addition, both Trump and Kim have an interest in reaching an agreement. Trump, for one, stands to become a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, which would solve all his domestic problems which have been accumulating by the day.
Ultimately, Bolton’s remark was little more than a political and diplomatic gaffe. As Trump, himself, pointed out, there is no legitimate comparison between the “Libyan model” and the entirely different Korean one. In the latter case, the doors to prosperity are open and investments could pour into North Korea.
But for this to happen there need to be guarantees and they need to be discussed in negotiations in greater detail. In this framework, South Korea, which has worked to create extensive bridges with Pyongyang, will continue to have an important role to play.
But the key to solving all the problems will be China. During the Korean war, which began with North Korea’s invasion of the south, the US stepped in to rescue the south from the communist invasion.
US troops under General MacArthur pushed North Korean forces out of the south and then became bogged down in the north.
The Chinese intervened on the side of North Korea and drove US forces south of the current partition line. China had supplied North Korea’s guarantee at the time by dealing the US its first defeat since World War II.
Beijing can serve as the guarantee again, today, in order to save a peace agreement that will have to happen sooner or later.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Un-Trump