National Column: Trump and Kim deserve credit for breaking logjam

by Thomas Walkom

No one is quite sure what U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un agreed to last week. But it doesn’t seem to matter. The theatrical peace gambit orchestrated by these two flamboyant impresarios appears to be paying off.

Did the two agree that North Korea would completely, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear arsenal before economic sanctions are lifted – as the U.S. has long demanded?

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says they did. North Korea’s state news agency says they didn’t.

I’m not sure it matters who is right. The bottom line is that sanctions will almost certainly be loosened. According to Trump, China has already done so.

Was Trump’s decision to suspend joint U.S.-South Korean war games a hint that the president is willing to pull American forces out of the peninsula? Maybe.

Trump justified his surprise move in part because he said it would save money. That echoes the language he used in his presidential campaign when he accused South Korea and Japan of being military freeloaders.

Is Trump willing to sign a peace treaty with North Korea to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War? Again maybe. The language used in the joint communiquÈ released after the summit suggests that but doesn’t specify it.

Still, the summit was crucial. By winning Trump’s endorsement of a process already begun by Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, it removed a roadblock on the way to a rapprochement between the two Koreas.

The two began military talks Thursday.

The summit also put into play the geopolitics of the region. China, which used to treat North Korea as a nuisance, is actively wooing Kim, fearful that he might get too friendly with Washington.

Japan is unsettled by Trump’s embrace of Kim. Even before the summit, its foreign policy establishment had been quietly debating Tokyo’s relationship with Washington, with one former ambassador even calling for Japan to acquire its own nuclear weapons.

Now Japan will have to decide how to deal with Trump’s new best friend. Some in the foreign policy establishment argue that North Korea cannot be trusted. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he will begin talks with the Kim regime in an effort to resolve the issue of 12 Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea in the í70s and í80s and forced to work as translators.

When Trump brags that North Korea no longer poses a threat to America, he isn’t entirely wrong. Kim was never interested in starting a war he could only lose. His threats to do so in past years were empty bombast designed to keep his adversary unsettled.

Rather, the dictatorís aims were more practical: a guarantee of security for his regime (hence the drive to acquire nuclear-tipped missiles) and economic development (hence the need to improve relations with the South).

In his own self-absorbed way, Trump seems to have recognized that. Indeed, he seems to have seen something of himself in Kim, whom he praised as a very talented negotiator.

Now these two have set in motion something that will be difficult to reverse. In South Korea, Moon’s pro-peace party swept local elections last week.

The Trump-Kim summit was certainly not typical. At some level, it bordered on the absurd, particularly when the U.S. president showed Kim a fictionalized video of what his country could look like if it embraced peace.

Like Trump himself, the summit was exaggerated and ostentatious. It produced a communique that was vague, thin in content and maddeningly open to interpretation.

It involved more theatre than statesmanship.

But it worked. It cleared the logjam and got things moving. South Korea’s Moon and the North’s Kim deserve considerable credit for this success.

Yet so does that shameless showman, Trump.

Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics.
Follow him on Twitter: @tomwalkom.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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