This past weekend witnessed a surreal moment where two larger-than-life figures, arguably the world’s most caricatured political leaders, walked through opposite hallways and met in the middle to make history. With one handshake, decades of hostility came to an end, opening the door for an alternative future.
A unique set of circumstances led to this moment, and although there is still a long road ahead, a great paradigm shift in the geopolitical arena of East Asia is in the cards.
The right actors
Undoubtedly, Donald Trump’s unconventional presidency played a determining role in making this new peace a reality. Through a combination of sheer audacity, reckless brinkmanship and an untraditional flexibility, Trump was the right American president to pioneer this breakthrough.
Lacking an ideological bent, obsessed with containing the North Korean threat, employing ridiculous showmanship and a blatant disregard for his critics, Trump forced a high-temperature atmosphere that created an unrelenting sense of urgency among all actors in the region to resolve the crisis before tensions grew disastrously.
A perfect mix of personalities made this opportunity possible. Kim Jong-un, despite being the ruler of one of the most isolated and repressive regimes in the world, was educated in Switzerland and thus had significant exposure to the Western world and its immense prosperity. This would explain his motive for reforming the North Korean system after years of solidifying his power.
In China, Xi Jinping had suffered estranged relations with Kim and, over the years, frustrations had grown over the perceived stubborn recklessness of his regime, a divide that Trump understood and exacerbated as he pressured China to escalate embargoes against its old client state.
In South Korea, the election of Moon Jae-in created a partner dedicated to achieving a breakthrough with his Northern counterpart and reversing decades of hostility.
However, although every actor was instrumental in contributing to the outcome, it was ultimately Trump’s focus and his unique personality characteristics, which included both a willingness to shake up the status quo and a non-judgmental respect for strong authoritarian rulers, that made the finale and resulting bonhomie possible.
A new chapter
Critics of the president were quick to claim that North Korea had made promises in the past while consistently violating them and pushing ahead with its nuclear program. While it is certainly possible that this history will be repeated again, there are several differences today that may augur well for a very different future.
The first and most crucial difference is that the hostilities of the Korean War, which were only temporarily put on hold through a ceasefire, have formally ended. The thaw began with the momentous meeting between Kim and Moon at Panmunjom, and was truly formalized with the recent summit.
The second crucial difference is the personal bond and goodwill that has formed between Trump and Kim, which is crucial for building bilateral trust and should not be underestimated in the field of international relations. This is unprecedented, as there has never been direct contact between an American president and his North Korean counterpart.
The third great difference is the possibility that Kim Jong-un is positioning himself to be the “Deng Xiaoping” of North Korea. All indications from his recent meetings with Moon, Xi and now Trump, seem to suggest that he is planning a revolutionary overhaul of the North Korean economic system that may lead to an unprecedented opening up that will see the North Koreans finally integrating with the global economy. Once this process is set into motion, it will be almost impossible to reverse.
Critics have also drawn attention to Trump’s recent withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal to suggest that any agreement with North Korea may be abruptly and unilaterally ended by Trump in a spontaneous fit of rage. While this scenario may also be plausible considering how unpredictable and quick to anger Trump has proved to be, significant differences also exist between the circumstances of North Korea in contrast to Iran that arguably provide room for optimism.
In contrast to the Iran deal, which included monetary contributions from the US, Trump has already indicated that any deal with North Korea will not include any financial or economic concessions from Washington. North Korea’s economic transformation is expected to be facilitated by investment by its wealthy and powerful neighbors.
Second and more important, the geopolitical realities of North Korea and Iran are substantially different. Iran is a regional power and a rival to America’s premier allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Significant domestic political lobbies that exert influence on US policy are hostile to an appeasement of Iran, especially as it expands its influence in a manner that threatens America’s allies in the region.
In contrast, North Korea is the most contained state in the world. It is bordered by two geographical superpowers, China and Russia. To the south and the east, there are the wealthy and powerful states of South Korea and Japan, which host large military bases of the world’s global superpower, the United States. North Korea, more than any other state, suffers the most unfortunate geographic reality and has absolutely no room to expand its influence. It is effectively contained.
Time will tell
What the ultimate outcome will be years from now resulting from the surreal flurry of events that have transpired in the past two months is unpredictable, but what is clear is that the road ahead will be hard and fraught with challenges.
However, several factors provide us cause for optimism, including the historic breakdown of hostilities between longtime enemies, Kim Jong-un’s seeming determination to bring his country out of its reclusion, and Donald Trump’s desire to see a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula become a cornerstone of his legacy.
If all involved parties manage to overcome the daunting challenges at hand, the door is open to an unprecedented period of prosperity in Northeast Asia, a transformed North Korea and the eventual unification of the Korean nation.