All ready for the wary handshake between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un

All ready for the wary handshake between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un

Meeting at the White House, on 1 June, between the US president, Donald Trump, and North Korean special envoy Kim Jong-chol, who handed over a letter of goodwill from Kim Jong-un.

(AP/Andrew Harnik)

Intense diplomatic efforts have created room for hope after more than six decades of tension on the Korean peninsula. Swords nonetheless remain raised and the mistrust built up since the signing of the armistice in 1953 does not look set to be completely dispelled in the short-term, not even with the holding of the planned summit between the rulers of the hitherto sworn enemies North Korea and the United States.

If the summit finally goes ahead, the US president, Donald Trump, and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, are due to shake hands in Singapore on 12 June. The meeting has been on a razor’s edge in recent weeks, with the US leader announcing that he would not attend following allegedly insulting remarks made by the North Korean negotiators.

Trump has finally agreed to go ahead with the meeting, on the date and at the place originally foreseen, and although he has warned that the dialogue could be a long process, he has made some concessions, such as recognising North Korea’s desire to reach some kind of agreement. Trump has even admitted that the summit with the North Korea leader could clear the way for the signing of a document that would put a formal end to the war. Although the armistice signed in 1953, and still in force today, brought an end to over three years of armed conflict, it has never been replaced by a permanent peace treaty.

The stakes are high, and the two countries pushing hardest for Pyongyang to sit at the negotiating table with Washington, China – the only international backer with any weight that North Korea still has left – and South Korea, are not ready to allow Trump’s ego or his diplomatic gaffes to put paid to many years of talks, some held in the open and others in secret.

The latest diplomatic offensive was stepped up following the summit between Kim Jong-un and the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, on 27 April in the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas. The final push, following a second summit on 26 May between the two Korean leaders, came with a meeting on Friday 1 June between Trump himself and North Korean special envoy Kim Yong-chol, who presented the US president with a letter of goodwill from Kim Jong-un. But this meeting was much more than the mere dispatch of a missive. Trump himself acknowledged having spoken for over two hours to whom he described as the “second most powerful man in North Korea”.

The North Korean Tsar’s envoy is the highest figure from the Pyongyang regime to have set foot in Washington for over two decades. Kim Yong-chol is one of the heavyweights of the North Korean military cupula and a former North Korean Intelligence chief. Few know as well as he does the ins and outs of the Kim dynasty, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the American enemy.

Pyongyang has played a clever move. How better to pander to Trump’s ego than to send, in person, this titan of the all-powerful North Korean military, both feared and admired by the United States Central Intelligence Agency for his talents in the field of espionage and his ability to bring South Korean soldiers out of their barracks? And who better than him to weigh up at close range he who recently tweeted his readiness to wipe North Korea off the map, whilst insulting “beloved leader” Kim Jong-un by referring to him as the “rocket man”?

North Korea, the advance towards greater geopolitical weight

The meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump will represent an unusual step towards peace on the Korean peninsula. Within the region itself, North Korea’s repeated nuclear and long-range missile tests have even riled Pyongyang’s Chinese allies, not to mention the Japanese and South Koreans. But it will also represent a sizeable victory for North Korea, which for decades has been calling for a bilateral meeting with the United States, disregarding South Korea’s role in achieving a lasting peace, and leaving aside its Chinese allies and Russian sympathizers.

Although Trump and Kim may sit alone at the negotiating table, the talks are, however, the result of successful diplomacy by Seoul and Beijing. And China will be present in some shape or form. North Korea’s last remaining friend, the Chinese government and its behind-the-scenes mediation prevented the North Korean regime from collapsing under the weight of the famine and the shortages of basic goods in the late 1990s and at the turn of the 21st century.

It was also Beijing’s envoys that convinced the other members of the Six Party Talks, especially South Korea, Japan and the United States, of the need to supply (or pay for) food to feed starving North Korea. And it was in China, finally, that a large share of the North Korean military officers who now form part of the praetorian guard most loyal to Kim Jong-un were trained – a loyal but also pragmatic circle that looks with concern at North Korea’s poverty while its Chinese communist allies bathe in pseudo-capitalist abundance, oblivious to ideological scruples.

If negotiations with the United States prove successful, at least a slowdown in the North Korean nuclear programme is likely in the medium term. North Korea is also likely to call for a resumption of the substantial assistance it was receiving when the six-party talks between the two Koreas, China, Russia, the United States and Japan created a degree of contact and even the opening of an export processing zone in North Korea, the Kaesong Industrial Complex, paid for, albeit, by the South.

But many obstacles lie ahead. Whilst the United States is calling for the immediate denuclearisation of North Korea, the latter is demanding security guarantees. Senior US defence officials and experts have already drawn the red line that Trump should not cross in his negotiations with Kim. James R. Clapper Jr., former director of National Intelligence under the Obama administration, who worked during much of his career on the Korean conflict, made it very clear in a recent statement. Clapper warned of the possibility that North Korea, in exchange for starting to dismantle its nuclear facilities, will demand the withdrawal of the “nuclear umbrella” of bombers and missile batteries with which the US is protecting its South Korean and Japanese allies, not only from the North Korean threat, but also from Chinese military vagaries in the northwest Pacific.

North Korea is reaching out for now, with gestures such as the release of several US prisoners, the moderate stance taken in the talks underway in Panmunjom, and the destruction of nuclear weapon testing facilities. The United States has also just taken a significant step forward, postponing a package of sanctions that it was ready to implement against the communist regime.

But neither the CIA nor the more conservative sectors of the US Republican Party have much hope that North Korea is genuinely committed to nuclear disarmament. Radical Senator Marco Rubio, on the side lines of his warmongering against Cuba, has also proclaimed himself a specialist in North Korea and has described Pyongyang’s gestures as no more than “a show”, calling for battle with communist Korea with no less vehemence than that directed at post-Castro Cuba.

However, Trump advisers with greater knowledge of Korean affairs than Senator Rubio say the summit with Kim Jong-un constitutes an essential diplomatic success for the current US administration, otherwise bogged down in the Middle East and wavering in its response to Russian manoeuvring in much of the world. But for the time being, that diplomatic victory can be claimed by Kim Jong-un, who has managed to shake off the profile of inexperienced, young tyrannical leader of a nation that refuses to bow to US supremacy.

The moves played in Singapore are expected to leave the game open for North Korea to increase its geopolitical weight, independent of the reach of its missiles and its ability to terrorise its neighbours, and even to free itself from China’s tutelage, so that it can rectify, also through ‘pragmatism’, the disaster wreaked by so many decades of planned economy, with new partners, including some of those it now considers sworn enemies.

This article has been translated from Spanish.