The Xi to understanding why Trump-Kim talks are a victory for the world
It's better that the two nations are in diplomatic contact rather than locked in a potentially catastrophic stand-off - and there are wider ramifications
Donald Trump’s second meeting with Kim Jong-un has been widely dismissed as ill-judged and inconsequential. I don’t agree.
Last week’s Hanoi summit, while yielding no agreement, already ranks among the most important diplomatic events of 2019 – not only due to the high-stakes geopolitics but also the economic symbolism involved.
During the first year of Trump’s presidency, relations between the US and North Korea were truly frightening. Kim stretched Washington’s patience throughout much of 2017, launching monthly ballistic missile tests, including over the Japanese mainland. Trump tightened US sanctions on Pyongyang and threatened “fire and fury like the world has never seen”, while openly mocking the “little rocket man” dictator.
Then, at short notice, Trump and Kim met in Singapore in June 2018 – the first face-to-face discussion between sitting US and North Korean leaders.
America’s political establishment was mostly critical, with knee-jerk objections from Democrats echoed by much of the defence and intelligence community, who said Trump was “appeasing Kim”.
Clearly, negotiating with North Korea is a leap of faith. Run as a communist dictatorship since the 1940s, its 25 millon-strong population endures “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations”, according to the United Nations. Kim conducted brutal purges after his father’s death in 2011, ordering the execution of his uncle and, reportedly, about 140 senior military officers and government officials. Yet the 2018 Singapore summit wasn’t a one-off.
Trump and Kim last week tried to build on their earlier agreement to “work towards denuclearisation”. Yes, the Hanoi meetings ended early, amid disagreement over the extent of US sanctions relief granted in return for what Trump viewed as only limited steps towards North Korean disarmament. But there was decent chemistry between the two leaders and both said another summit will follow.
In the meantime, Kim’s missile tests have been on hold since late 2017 and, while US troops remain in South Korea, military exercises are on go-slow. America retains its Asian “regional umbrella”, promising in-kind retaliation if local allies are attacked.
But there are now ongoing discussions on limiting North Korea’s nuclear programme and allowing related inspections, as a result of which trade sanctions applied by both the US and the UN could theoretically be dropped.
Trump can be criticised under numerous headings – and his diplomatic methods are far from conventional. But I’d rather Washington and Pyongyang were at least in diplomatic contact and trying to be constructive, rather than locked in a bad-tempered and potentially catastrophic stand-off.
The bigger picture is that, however disarmament negotiations between the US and North Korea pan out, these Trump-Kim summits could yet have a positive impact on North Korea’s moribund economy. Could this Cold War throwback one day become another Asian economic hot spot?
Building on US efforts, South Korea’s President Moon floated the idea at the weekend of joint inter-Korean commercial co-operation, subject to Washington’s say-so. The economic and political gulf between the two Koreas is clearly huge. Since splitting from the North after World War 2, South Korea has democratised and flourished, becoming the 11th-biggest economy on Earth. Exporting giants such as Samsung, Hyundai and Kia have driven income per head to almost $30,000 (R427,000), above Portugal and Spain.
North Korea, in contrast, with its state-driven communist economy, runs a huge trade deficit, has GDP per capita below $1,000 and struggles to feed its people.
Perhaps the more relevant example for North Korea is Vietnam – the carefully chosen location of this latest Trump-Kim summit. South Korea has gone the whole capitalist hog, in America’s orbit for several generations, defining itself by its ultra-Westernisation. Vietnam and North Korea, in contrast, have much in common. Both are one-party states, eschewing democracy, and both have a history of bloody conflict with America.The difference is, of course, that Vietnam normalised relations with the US in the mid-1990s.
Over the past quarter of a century, as sanctions have lifted, trade between the two countries ballooned 120-fold, reaching $54bn in 2018. America is now the largest destination for Vietnamese goods, including clothing, electronics and footwear. Vietnam, meanwhile, imports machinery, vehicles and food from the US, as Trump was keen to highlight to Kim. Vietnamese cities are awash with US brands, from Starbucks to Burger King.
But the country’s burgeoning private sector and increasingly capitalist economy haven’t loosened the Communist Party’s grip on political power – a combination Kim could choose to adopt.
There’s another vital difference between Vietnam and North Korea. Vietnam enjoys close economic and diplomatic ties with Washington because both countries view Chinese expansion in the South China Sea as a geopolitical threat. In 2018, a US aircraft carrier docked in a Vietnamese port for the first time since the Vietnam War – a display of unity squarely aimed at China. This week’s Hanoi summit, meanwhile, coincided with the 40th anniversary of the bloody Sino-Vietnamese border war, the latest in a long history of skirmishes between Vietnam and its huge neighbour.
In contrast, North Korea and China are staunch allies. Beijing has the only bilateral security treaty with Pyongyang and, while imposing its own sanctions, China is also North Korea’s main economic lifeline, providing not just the fuel and foodstuffs that help Kim retain power, but also most of the cars, smartphones and other consumer goods now mollifying the country’s nascent middle class.
North Korea will eventually adopt capitalism, but it will be non-democratic capitalism, along Chinese rather than South Korean lines. Kim could also make a peace of sorts with Washington, but it will be on Chinese terms, rather than a Vietnamese-style US partnership in defiance of Beijing. North Korea could even give up nuclear weapons, but again, only if China says so.
The bottom line is that Beijing wants a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, while Trump wants to withdraw from the region, winning plaudits for brokering peace while sparing the expense of ongoing overseas US engagement.
For Trump was negotiating not with Kim in Hanoi, but effectively with China’s president Xi. That’s another reason this widely derided meeting was actually so important.
– © The Sunday Telegraph