Trump summit a PR coup for Kim

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The North Korea-US summit held earlier this month in Singapore was billed as a moment of history, the day the world changed and one of the world's most frightening games of brinkmanship would be resolved.

Kim Jong-un greets Donald TrumpThe reality is starkly different with longtime watchers in South Korea and further afield writing off the event as a pointless endeavour used by both United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to look good on the homefront. As the dust has settled and delegations have left Singapore, is the world any safer after the sweeping concessions the US has made with little in return?

If the summit and its outcomes occurred under previous president Barack Obama, some have since argued, those on the centre left would be cheering. There appears to be no basis for this claim other than as a 'gotcha' Tweet. The reality is, the summit would never have occurred under another president because no other president — or State Department — would have made the concession of a meeting at all for no apparent gain.

Indeed, a joint statement which promises nothing that has not been said before should be considered a failure given it was the outcome of negotiations made at a head of state level.

Analysts have been quick to point out that president Bill Clinton's administration in 1994 achieved more by including monitoring of nuclear sites. Although this agreement eventually faltered under suspicion North Korea was cheating the system of checks, it did provide enough depth to engender cautious optimism of actual change. This month's agreement does no such thing.

The first point of the statement is telling. It reaffirms a mutual desire to 'establish new US-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity'. The wording itself is nothing new, with commitments to engagement floated previously. But read alongside comments from Trump since, particularly regarding US private firms establishing footholds in North Korea, could this be the moment of fruition?

North Korean media last week reported Trump had promised Kim sanctions would be dropped. While the US State Department is yet to make a statement on sanctions, it does give an indication of the closed-doors conversation the pair held in Singapore.

 

"That Kim was greeted like a K-Pop star rather than a K-Dictator tells us more about the motives of his attendance than any statement could."

 

For much of the rest of the world, concerns about Kim's regime have little to do with sanctions. The threat of nuclear strikes and obscene human rights violations are far more pressing. 'Denuclearisation', analysts have warned for months, has different meanings for the US and North Korean administrations and would need to be clearly and exactly laid out. That has not happened.

Fears over the development of nuclear warheads capable of reaching mainland US should not be assuaged by the feature of a commitment on behalf of North Korea to 'work towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula'. Pledges to dismantle rocket testing sites briefly inspired confidence, but without a solid and achievable monitoring program, like that suggested in 1994, simply taking Kim's word for it is not enough.

At the same time, Trump has dumped military exercises with South Korea — to which North Korea has frequently retaliated with missile test launches — citing budget concerns and further weakening the South Korea-US relationship and stability in the region.

The reality of human rights abuses in North Korea have been a source of outrage for the global community since 2014 when the United Nations released an explosive report which found abuses to be far worse and further-reaching than previously known. Prior to the summit, Trump repeatedly shrugged off questioning, saying human rights would not be on the agenda.

This made Singapore, where protests and demonstrations are regularly shut down, an attractive locale for the summit. Five South Korean women were arrested and deported by Singaporean authorities for holding a demonstration near St Regis Hotel, where Kim was staying. Trump has since said he avoided touching human rights to prioritise 'avoiding nuclear war'. Which again raises the question, why did he not then go harder on securing a meaningful path to getting there?

Neither Trump nor Kim should be applauded for the summit. That Kim was greeted by waving tourists and locals while touring Singapore's attractions like he is a K-Pop star rather than the K-Dictator he actually is tells us more about the motives of his attendance than any statement could. This has been a PR coup for the Kim regime, which has returned home justified in the narrative that his leadership is on par in terms of global influence with that of the President of the United States.

For Trump, who has taken delight in suggestions he is deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize, the summit is nothing but another substance-free television event.

 

 

Erin CookErin Cook is a Jakarta-based journalist with a focus on South East Asia, and editor of the SEA news digest Dari Mulut ke Mulut.

Topic tags: Erin Cook, Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump, North Korea, USA

 

 

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Existing comments

Communication between people is the vehicle for resolving conflict. Any start of dialogue and the chance to meet in person rather than as images on TV must help in the process of peace (and I know that any good psychologist could write a book on the meeting of Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump). Maybe other presidents would not have had the meeting, but maybe other presidents would not have had the same effect on Kim Jong.
David | 19 June 2018


This is an astute assessment: it seems that the "Summit" was all about TV imagery -- and that, after all, is a significant part of Trump's background. He is skilful at talking to his support base -- mostly with accusations and reassurances -- but there seems to be disconcertingly little substance in what he says. Of course, world leaders must be willing to speak with those whom they detest but part of my concern is that the US President seemed to relish the occasion so much. [contrast that demeanour with his approach to his European and other allies, recently.] The effect of the Singapore meeting seemed, principally, to have been cutting the ground from under the feet of his regional allies, notably South Korea and Japan; apart from the fact that they'd recognise the difficulties involved if he needed to back track: for example, if -- having removed troops -- how would his actions look if -- in the event that political circumstances changed -- he was forced to re-deploy them? Unlike David, I cannot be at all certain about the "effect" that the President had on Chairman Kim. I'd say that the real winners were the Chinese leadership. Don't overlook the symboplism: Mr Kim srrived in an Air China plane.
John CARMODY | 19 June 2018


The "wait and see" policy is always better than the emotional "blind kneejerk" response which seems to have dominated the media since the summit.
john frawley | 19 June 2018


Well said Erin Cook. One of the best commentaries I have read & heard in the mass media (both Australian and overseas) on the outcome of the Kim-Trump meeting. The "to work towards the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula" has enough wriggle room to give international relations exegetes endless hours of cerebral entertainment. On one reading Kim is telling Trump that he will "work towards" denuclearisation at the same time as Trump makes sure South Korea is in no way nuclearized. How would the South Koreans fee about that? Even more insecure than how they might feel when Trump cancels joint US-South Korea military exercises because they are 'provocative' and cost a lot of money? At the post-summit press conference gave a masterful US sit-com performance. He didn't use words that a kid over twelve years wouldn't understand. His answers, whether or not they were relevant to the journalists questions, were simplistic and aimed directly at his base back in the USA. I saw the media played for suckers. Trump held the mike and was able to avoid any follow-up questions. He sold his four point plan better than any US TV commercial ever could.
Uncle Pat | 19 June 2018


This pantomime is a potential disaster for Australia a s we see Tump make good on his commitment to withdrawal of the US from international alliances to a position of selfish isolation. Great victory for China CP-Inc in the offing through its equally nasty N Korean satellite. Get ready for some really rough water ahead and a new security alliance based on Japan/India/Vietnam etc who recognise China for what it really is.
Eugene | 20 June 2018


Since you have not read the actual agreement I think some of what you say may be speculation. What you may have missed is that the sanctions remain in place until the denuclearization of N. Korea and the dismantling of their missile program. Talking with someone is preferred to where it was headed prior to the talking. Many like to say Kim Jong Un got legitimacy of his rule, not realizing no one ever doubted he is the ruler of his country. Besides, this door opening to an end of hostilities on the Korean peninsula and the reunification of their countries is good for them and the world. Just give it a little time and see how it goes. There will be verification, don't worry.
Paul Matthew Farrell | 26 June 2018


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