A triumph of faith over fact as history is made

Columnist  | Sunanda K Datta Ray

Opinion, Columnists

A denuclearised North Korea should be welcome to India for two reasons.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during their meet on Sentosa Island, Singapore. (Photo: AP)

The world held its breath on Tuesday as America’s President Donald Trump held out a hand that had only lately been crushed in a bruising grip by France’s Emmanuel Macron to Kim Jong-un, Chairman of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The world heaved a sigh of relief when Mr Kim clasped Mr Trump’s hand, and the two men turned with smiles to the waiting cameras, lightly patting each other on the back.

The setting for this historic scene was the resort island of Sentosa off the coast of Singapore whose Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, spent $20 million on arrangements for an unprecedented summit between two countries that are technically still at war and whose top leaders have never before exchanged even the time of day. Mr Lee felt he was investing in peace. The two principals asserted at the end of the day that they had lived up to that hope. However, their terse 400-word statement promising much committed the signatories to very little. It was a triumph of faith over fact. Mr Trump later said it takes not the five seconds he had mentioned earlier but a mere second to size up the other party and decide whether he is friend or foe. Presumably, he had no doubts at all with Mr Kim. It seems to have been a walkover even though it took Mr Trump and Mr Kim six hours to sign the document.

A denuclearised North Korea should be welcome to India for two reasons. First, it might enable Mr Trump to reorient his Asian policy and truly replace the Asia-Pacific concept with Indo-Pacific. Moreover, North Korea would no longer need to enrich corrupt Pakistani generals and politicians with millions of illicit dollars for hi-tech secrets and equipment from the network run by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Mr Trump and Mr Kim were alone for 40 minutes with only their interpreters present. That must have been the crucial part. Then their advisory teams joined them for full-fledged formal discussions. The encounter continued over a working lunch of prawn cocktail, Korean stuffed cucumber and beef ribs, followed by a brief and probably impromptu tete-a-tete stroll in the Capella Hotel garden before the two leaders sat down to make their mark on the documents.

The seminal sentence of their agreement reads “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”. Does this mean the two Koreas will at once — or ever? — be transformed into a haven of peace and tranquility? The focus of the Western media (the main source of our news from Sentosa) being on Mr Kim’s unpredictability and the alleged brutality of his reclusive and authoritarian regime, the North will be blamed for any departure from that idyllic goal. But Iran justifiably warns Mr Kim that its own experience shows that the US President is not to be trusted. As Iran’s official spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht put it, Mr Trump is “a man who revokes his signature while abroad”. Canada’s Justin Trudeau, smarting from the insults Mr Trump added to the injury of savage import duties, might not disagree. Nor would the signatories to the Paris climate change agreement which
Mr Trump repudiated.

Scepticism about the sanctity of his commitments did not prevent a beaming Mr Trump from assuring reporters afterwards that his aim of “complete, irreversible, verifiable denuclearisation” had been achieved. He would, he declared, end the joint military exercises in South Korea by the US and South Korean air forces which the North denounces as “intentional military provocation”. That pious decision may not have been communicated to the South’s President, Moon Jae-in, who seems to have been taken aback although Mr Trump called him on Monday. This was all the more surprising since Mr Moon worked hard to broker the summit, meeting Mr Kim twice and even flying to Washington to prepare the ground.

Perhaps this was another off-the-cuff boast like displaying the inside of “The Beast”, the armoured limousine that accompanies US Presidents wherever they go, to dazzle
Mr Kim. Or whipping out an iPad and showing the North Korean leader images of the horrors and happiness that hung on his response in Singapore. He could “shake the hand of peace and enjoy prosperity like he has never seen” or slide back into “more isolation”. The video’s authors must have told Mr Trump that memories of the brutal US bombing during the 1950-53 Korean War are not only still fresh in North Korea but are exacerbated by exercises that demonstrate the US Air Force’s formidable destructive power as well as its ability and willingness to use it.

At the end of this spectacular blackmail, a complacent Mr Trump told the media that the summit had been “tremendously successful”. It was “fantastic”. Mr Kim, yesterday’s derided “rocket man” who would be destroyed “in fire and fury”, was “a very worthy, very smart negotiator”, a “very talented man” who “loves his country very much”. Mr Trump would invite him to cosy fireside chats at the White House. They would meet “many times”. Mr Kim would “very quickly” demolish his bombs.

It could not be otherwise. Mr Trump desperately needed a win to compensate for the disastrous G-7 meeting in Quebec. He yearns for the Nobel Peace Prize. Mr Kim craves global status.

As for denuclearisation, it took South Africa five years. North Korea may take much longer. Meanwhile, there are US commitments to protect South Korea and Japan and a domestic lobby that opposes any “sellout”. The fireworks can be expected only when Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, and an as yet unnamed “relevant high-level” North Korean official try to work out the details. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. But the agreement does rule out regime change — that favourite pastime of American Presidents in vulnerable Asian republics — in Pyongyang.