Some statesmen by their sheer force of personality and unorthodox ways of politicking arouse disdain among onlookers. US President Donald is perhaps the most famous figure of that kind in world politics today.
No matter what he does, Trump attracts criticism. He evokes strong feelings of antipathy among a large and voluble swathe of opinion within half of America. The making of history in a virtual solo act on his part, which is the rarest of efforts, on Sentosa Island in Singapore on Tuesday and which the world watched with awe and disbelief, will be instinctively stonewalled.
Half of America simply refuses to accept the positive tidings about him coming from Singapore. The skeptics are all over social media pouring scorn, voicing skepticism, unable to accept that if the man has done something sensible and good for his country and for world peace, it deserves at the very least patient, courteous attention.
The problem is about Trump – not so much the imperative need of North Korea’s denuclearization. But western detractors – ostensibly rooting for the “liberal international order” – will eventually lapse into silence because what emerges is that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has enough to “bite” here in the deal that Trump is offering – broadly, a security guarantee from the US and the offer of a full-bodied relationship with an incremental end to sanctions plus a peace treaty.
Succinctly put, Trump has offered a deal that Kim simply cannot afford to reject. The ending of the US-ROK military exercises forthwith; Trump’s agenda of eventual withdrawal of troops from ROK; the lure of possible withdrawal of sanctions once 20% of the denuclearization process gets underway, or once the process becomes irreversible; Trump’s hint that he has sought assurances from Japan and the ROK that they will be “generous” in offering economic assistance to the reconstruction of North Korea; China’s involvement in the crucial process – these are tangibles.
Re-election at stake
Trump seems to have succeeded in impressing Kim how green his valley too could be if he accepted the deal. On the other hand, Kim senses that he has an interlocutor who is keenly seeking a success story for his beleaguered presidency and is not playing political games or merely waffling. Trump candidly, disarmingly admitted at the press conference after the talks with Kim concluded that this success story would certainly go into his campaign plank when he makes a bid for re-election in 2020. What bigger signal can Trump give regarding his good faith.
In sum, Kim gets a one-time deal that must see the light of day before November 2020. It is custom-made by someone who correctly figured out Kim’s needs and compulsions. Thus, a personal chemistry is developing, which will be further cemented when Kim travels to Washington. Evidently, Kim also senses that he must concede on issues that matter to Trump politically – the issue of the remains of Americans who lost their lives in the Korean War, which is a hugely emotive issue in the US and whose resolution casts Trump in a positive glow. Trump was pleasantly surprised that Kim agreed on the spot when he made the request – just like that.
Geopolitically, Kim weighs in that in the ROK President Moon Jae-In, he already has someone who is a famous supporter of Seoul’s “Sunshine Policy”. There is already talk in Seoul about doing trade with North Korea. And it is a masterstroke on Trump’s part to include China in the negotiations for a peace treaty between the US and North Korea – although legally speaking, that is not mandatory. Trump flagged twice that US intelligence has spotted that China-North Korean border controls have eased lately since the US-China tensions began rising over trade.
Trump is ensuring that China remains a big stakeholder right until the finishing line. Now, a Korean peace treaty will inevitably reflect on the presence of US troops in South Korea – and Japan – which is, of course, an issue of momentous consequence for China’s security and the power dynamic of Northeast Asia.
The unthinkable is happening
The bottom line is that Trump has pulled off something that could make him a man of history and strengthen his America First project and in the process might win him a second term as president. The unthinkable is happening and his detractors are desperately searching for loopholes in the joint declaration signed in Singapore. It is a pathetic sight because no political document ever drafted by man has been 100% foolproof. A document is always open to interpretation. To err is human, to forgive divine.
However, that is beside the point here. The heart of the matter is that a big portion of the Trump-Kim deal cannot even be written on parchment paper. It is one-on-one. It is built around personal rapport, while the terms were agreed upon beforehand. The assisting role of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kim’s 30-year old sister Kim Yo-jong in the signing ceremony presented an extraordinary sight, testifying to the profundity of the occasion. In the East, you don’t break a deal that your sister bore witness to.
Therefore, setting aside prejudices regarding Trump the man, this is a moment when America should be capable of savoring. Of course, history shows that man proposes and God disposes. But the good part here is that no one is seeking to undermine what Trump and Kim have embarked upon.
So long as their mutual commitment is not in doubt, the prospects of a settlement on the Korean Peninsula are reasonably good. That’s what Trump’s Art of the Deal would have said.