Singapore summit a diplomacy debacle?
June 12 has been pencilled in as the day US President Donald Trump’s international diplomacy astute will be tested as he’s scheduled to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore. That meeting is now in doubt but the White House insists it is still ‘hopeful’ the meeting will go ahead despite North Korea explicitly stating that it may reconsider the upcoming summit with the US.
While the latest move by North Korea has been viewed by some as a strategy to strengthen its hand ahead of the summit in order to extract as much concession as possible out of the US during the negotiations, I submit that there are other important factors that may have influenced North Korea’s latest strong messaging.
Pyongyang doubts US commitment
I contend that the first reason is the decision by the US and South Korea to go ahead with their routine joint military exercises. This decision may be seen by North Korea as lack of good will and commitment to the upcoming talks.
North Korea has always viewed the joint military exercises as a pretext for an invasion of the country. Going through with the military exercises would have left a bad taste in Kim Jong-un’s mouth especially after his overtures of releasing three Americans who were being held in North Korea and Pyongyang’s unilateral declaration that it will dismantle the Punggye-ri nuclear test facility.
The second reason is America’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal whose explicit purpose was to curtail and roll back Iran’s nuclear capability.
The withdrawal of the US from the multilateral deal, an act which has infuriated the other parties to the deal doesn’t exactly instil confidence and trust in the US to keep its part of the bargain.
The third reason is the remarks by Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton. His remarks, holding up Libya’s disarmament as the approach that the US should adopt in its negotiations with North Korea would have caused serious concern in the North Korean camp. Mr Bolton’s remarks would not have helped America’s effort to finally bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table.
Bolton’s gaffe stirs the diplomacy pot
Kim Jong-un will be keenly aware of the fate of Libya’s former leader and strongman Muammar Gaddafi after he gave up his nuclear weapons program with the promise of the country being brought back to the fold of respectable global nations.
It is definitely not a fate, even by insinuation, a leader like Kim Jong-un would find acceptable. His presidency has been built around brutal consolidation of his position as leader and any move that will threaten his grip on power and undermine his projection of the image of a strongman will be unpalatable to the North Korean leader. His very existence depends on it.
Viewed in isolation, it is easy to dismiss these factors as the reason for the latest balking by North Korea. But collectively though, they present a compelling and sufficient reason to cast doubt on the commitment and seriousness by the US to reach a deal that is fair and one that will meet North Korea’s key goal of getting the decades old crippling economic sanctions lifted.
The challenge and test for Trump’s diplomacy credentials in the next few days and weeks is to steady the ship and ensure the situation doesn’t escalate to the point that North Korea pulls out of the June talks in Singapore altogether.
There couldn’t be a stronger motivation for Trump and his administration to keep the upcoming summit on course. Mr Trump in his typical self pontificating leadership style has already done the victory laps before the diplomatic race to get North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenals and capability even begins.
Time will tell though if criticism on Trump’s much touted innate ability to close deals has been too harsh.