President Donald Trump is the judge and the jury when he assesses himself. His attitude is plain and simple: he can do no wrong and when it is a game of numbers, he always gets the perfect score. Thus, he went to Singapore and came back with a one-page joint declaration in which there was one line where North Korea committed itself to denuclearisation. Based on that one line, he claimed that this ridiculously vague commitment has ended the nuclear threat from North Korea for good, a threat from which the South Koreans and the Japanese have spent sleepless nights for decades since North Korea became a nuclear-weapons state and the issue of North Korea’s nuclear threat a major issue of concern in international politics.
That claim that should never have been taken seriously is now falling apart following the just-concluded visit of the secretary of state Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang to follow up on the Trump-Kim Jong-un Singapore Summit. The secretary, of course, is giving it a spin of his own, claiming that he had made significant strides towards the pertinent issue of North Korean denuclearisation. The US state department Spokeswoman said that the secretary had been ‘very firm’ in pursuing three goals that the president had set in Singapore, namely total ‘denuclearisation of North Korea, security assurances and return of remains’ of dead American soldiers and that he had made good progress on all three issues.
The secretary went to Pyongyang under pressure set by his own boss who declared the dangers of nuclear threats from North Korea were over and left it to him to deliver. The secretary himself added to his own pressure by setting a timetable for ensuring complete denuclearisation of North Korea in two years to coincide with the end of president Trump’s first term. The hawkish National Security adviser John Bolton added to that pressure by stating, before the secretary went to Pyongyang, that the bulk of North Korea’s denuclearisation could be achieved in a year’s time. These optimistic timetables were set when before the trip, the secretary was informed by US intelligence that North Koreans were showing no intention of doing what the US president, his secretary of state and the NSA were taking for granted and that instead of taking steps towards denuclearisation, they were building new nuclear installations according to US intelligence reports.
The news emanating from North Korea surrounding the trip of Mike Pompeo is different from what the secretary of state or the US administration is suggesting. For starters from the pile of discouraging news related to the secretary’s trip, one of the most important ones was that he returned from his trip without meeting the North Korean leader. On his last trip to Pyongyang, he had met Kim Jong-un and based on the meeting, he had also confidently stated that the North Korean leader was, first, sincerely committed to denuclearisation, and second, to return the remains of the dead Americans. Therefore, the failure of Mike Pompeo in meeting Kim Jong-un this time points to the fact that the North Koreans and the Trump administration may not be on the same page on denuclearisation.
In fact, following the secretary’s trip, doubts are being raised strongly over the rosy, self-congratulatory claims of the US president over the Singapore Summit. President Trump had made it appear after the Singapore Summit as if he had cast a magic spell on the North Korean leader and Kim Jong-un had agreed to follow him like a pupil following his master or that his negotiating skills were of such an extraordinary level, that he was easily able to make the North Korean leader see in president Trump as a great leader that he must follow for his own interest. Thus, while the North Koreans made no public pronouncements on the summit, the president and his men trumpeted the Singapore Summit as a great victory. They ridiculed former US presidents, in particular, president Obama, for failing to achieve success with the Korean nuclear problem that president Trump had done so easily!
Of course, he had done none of that. He and his men had simply counted the chickens before they were hatched. The US president had instead helped the North Korean leader come out from his pariah status in world politics to the role of a peacemaker by agreeing to the summit, the offer for which had come from the North Korean side but only after North Korea had successfully tested its missiles to achieve long distance delivery to reach US mainland right under the nose of the US president. And North Korea did not pick a single cent of the billions of dollars that were spent for the summit. The price that North Korea had made for such extraordinary behaviour by president Trump was simply that one-line commitment in the joint declaration to denuclearise.
North Korea made that commitment without any time frame, without any roadmap and most important of all, without anyone mechanism to verify whether North Korea would indeed denuclearise. It was, indeed, a major mystery in international politics that such a vague commitment of a power that has no credibility at all was taken seriously by so many in the international community including the international media and not just by the US president and his men for resolving a problem that had concerned not just the previous US administrations but all the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council for decades. And, many in the international community and the international media saw hope in the Singapore Summit forgetting that president Trump’s credibility is also no better and, perhaps, worse than the North Korean leader and that the claim that he had brought this decades-old major international crisis to an end could be believed only if he had supernatural powers.
The North Koreans were not too happy with the way the US president had been claiming all the glory for himself for ending the crisis on the Korean Peninsula like they had no role in the so-called end to the North Korean nuclear crisis. The US side extremely insensitively just took the North Koreans for granted. That was a big mistake. Thus North Korea used an unknown spokesman of its foreign ministry to shred and destroy the claims of the US president. The spokesman in a statement carried by the KCNA, the state-run news agency of North Korea, shredded and destroyed the optimistic picture of the US president and his men in a language that paid little attention to courtesy or diplomacy.
The statement was issued on Saturday while Pompeo was still in Pyongyang and had claimed he had achieved significant progress ‘in every element’ of negotiations that he described as ‘good faith negotiations.’ The statement was venomous. It stated that in his negotiations with the North Korean team, Mike Pompeo and ‘the US side came up only with its unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearisation’ and that the issues ‘the US side insisted on during the talks were the same cancerous ones that the past US administrations had insisted on.’ The statement did not attack president Trump directly and said North Korea still had faith in him. It nevertheless warned the United States that the style of negotiations adopted by the United States had brought the two sides to a ‘dangerous’ state that ‘could rattle our determination to denuclearise.
Those in the international community and international media that were optimistic of the Singapore Summit were not very eager to see much in the KCNA statement than rhetoric. They were still willing to give the US president credit for daring to tread where none of his predecessors had dared, namely sitting across the table with the North Korean leader, and reversing the traditional negotiating tactics by pushing it from the top down. They saw the KCNA statement as a negotiating tactic and felt that the North Koreans were far from ending the process that was started in Singapore.
That could be true. Nevertheless, Mike Pompeo’s visit has underlined the need by those who see the Singapore Summit with optimism to question whether the tactic that President Donald Trump follows at home which is bully his way through would work with the North Korean leader who and whose family have transformed bullying into statecraft. President Donald Trump had initially tried to bully the North Korean leader by promising a limited war. That failed. However, in changing his tactics from war to negotiations, president Trump has not yet revealed why North Korea would trust him and give up its only claim to recognition by the United States, namely its nuclear arsenals. If withdrawing sanctions was one lure, Mike Pompeo said in Tokyo after his visit to Pyongyang that the sanctions would remain intact. Kim Jong-un knows too well that he could trust president Donald Trump only in his own and his North Korea’s peril.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.
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