Seventy years ago, it was unthinkable back then for anyone to think that the United States and North Korea would ever go back to the table and negotiate for peace. The war on the Korean Peninsula was one of the iconic wars of the century due to its brutality, use of sophisticated killing technologies and widespread impact. It launched the Cold War literally with a bang and even outlasted the US-Russia Cold War for nearly 18 years.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un described the path towards the meeting as “arduous” while US President Donald Trump described the meeting as a terrific one. The meeting happened because both leaders are facing tremendous domestic challenges. Trump is being extremely attacked by several groups due to his fuzzy domestic and foreign policies, while Kim faces a debilitating and crumbling domestic economy.
Compared with Trump, Kim faces more serious domestic issues because the high cost of his nuclear program had affected his government’s abilities to provide for the needs of the rising population. Economic sanctions had severely affected Nokor’s economy and Kim had no choice but to provide his regime space and time to deal with external enemies.
Both leaders need this meeting for their own interests. Trump needs this to at least project a win in the international front, while Kim needs to decrease tensions with the United States and create a perception that Nokor is not anymore a pariah of the international community.
More than what Al-jazeera described as a “dramatic meeting,” there was no dramatic ending yesterday. A joint statement signed by Trump and Kim did not really assure anything except a very terse phrase which “re-affirms” North Korean commitment towards the “de-nuclearisation” of the Korean Peninsula. The lack of details is problematic since it really does not answer why the United States went and met Kim in the first place– to get Nokor’s commitment to account for its nuclear arsenal and provide for their destruction in exchange for economic concessions from the United States.
What it was really is a Public Relations stunt. Just like what Nixon did when it visited China shortly after becoming nuclear in the sixties, Trump’s visit was an affirmation and acceptance of Nokor as a nuclear power. It was a subtle way of saying that the US had just accepted the reality of a responsible nuclear power in the persona of Nokor. Of course, there was a phrase wherein the United States expect the right to verify Nokor’s compliance, nonetheless, this is entirely useless if you think about it because Nokor can very well hide its nuclear arsenal beyond the reach of nuclear arms inspectors.
Trump’s visit legitimises Nokor’s earlier assertions of its undertaking of a nuclear program as part of its efforts to secure its power security. What we saw six months ago, of rockets being fired from silos are just Nokor’s way of telling the world that it is capable of developing its own nuclear power.
Challenges for Kim
The issue about the United States does not end with this meeting in Singapore. Kim had to report back to political supporters of his regime, including the military elite. In every autocratic regime, expect political divisions or factions. Expect a group of people who will not accept Kim’s move and expect some to accept it. Expect some to challenge Kim’s decisions and even accuse him of deviating from what his parents and ancestors did.
While the meeting could bolster Trump’s stock, it is not so with Kim’s. By negotiating with the “main enemy”, some would probably question Kim’s power. What was that meeting all about? Why is Nokor negotiating when it is reportedly as strong and equal with the enemy?
Kim had to justify meeting the “demon” without saying that it was not just a political but an economic necessity. North Koreans had been indoctrinated by the Kims for several decades to treat the United States as the country’s main threat and enemy, and it remains to be seen how Kim and his regime would now justify a pact with the devil. Was the meeting a sacrifice for Kim?
Kim really had sacrificed a lot in going to this meeting. It is hard to predict what really goes on behind Nokor’s autocratic regime, but surely, had this decision been undertaken by a very small and elect group of personalities, this could potentially start the rise of dissent against Kim and spark a power struggle within the hermetic state. This looms large if the state had not sufficiently justified the meeting as more of an economic concession rather than a military or political power-justified.
It would benefit both Trump and Kim if that meeting is described as a tacit recognition of Nokor as a “nuclear power”, similar to the way the US recognised China during the sixties.