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By Morak Babajide-Alabi
The relationship between North Korea, the United States of America and by extension, South Korea is not looking good right now. It has never been smooth at any time, but if feelers from the Korean Peninsula are anything to go by, the much-anticipated peace process spearheaded by these three seems to be heading for the rocks. The “stances” of these actors are not very assuring that progress will be made beyond what has been achieved now.
In a surprise move last week, the North Koreans threatened to throw the baby out with the bathwater and not attend the meeting scheduled for June 12 with President Donald Trump. As a first step towards scuttling the process (so it seems), the country has suspended further meetings with its southern neighbours for what it said was a violation of one of the agreements of the April 27 Korean Peninsula Peace Summit.
It takes just a little walk back to recall the details of the historic meeting between Kim and his counterpart Moon Jae-in. Now, the North Koreans lashed out at the southerners for taking part in a joint military exercise with the US last week, against the principles of the meeting. It was a symbolic meeting which caught the attention of the world as the two leaders smiled into each other’s faces and addressed the media giving the optimism of a lasting working relationship.
This short camaraderie seems to be over faster than it started as the peninsula is “on fire” again and the North Koreans have gone back to using harsh words against their neighbours. The propaganda speakers might have have been dismantled, it has not stopped the return of the animosities of the past. Analysts are reporting similar patterns of broken and insincere agreements in the past, but none had a planned climax meeting with the President of the United States of America.
This June 12 meeting looks set to hit a dead end, although the Americans are hoping it holds as planned. Trump had tried to play down the threat of the North Koreans when he said meetings are still being held on working out the modalities. He sounded less optimistic, though, when he said: “If the meeting happens, it happens. And if it doesn’t, we go on to the next step. We may have the meeting. We may not have the meeting. If we don’t have it, that will be very interesting. … We’ll see what happens.”
The steps towards having a meeting between these two have been dramatic. To Kim, he continued in the tradition of his forefathers, by continually threatening the peace of the world, from the Korean peninsula. He ramped up his nuclear capabilities and tested them as he willed, turning himself into a nuisance in the peninsula and beyond. While he was on this for quite some time, like none of his predecessors, he kept his neighbours awake through the nights, and invariably got the attention he wanted, albeit negatively.
Notwithstanding though, in a short while, he moved from being a foe you keep at arm’s length to someone you desperately want on your side on the dinner table. The Americans were all over him, while he, also through the South Koreans pushed for a meeting with Trump. Within a short period, Kim became a force to be reckoned with as he patched up the relationship with his southern neighbours. Kim moved from being a disruptive figure to a potential ally of the powerful.
Now the world is apprehensive that all the gains made in the past six months may go to waste. To be fair, with “adequate” cynicism, Kim had gone all the way with the peace process with his southern neighbours. The memories of the joint hosting of the Winter Olympics are still fresh in our minds.
Despite the scepticism about Kim’s intention and reliability, he announced to the world his aim of inviting foreign journalists and experts to witness the official shutdown of the nuclear test sites. This invitation had given the assurance that Kim is committed to ensuring the success of the deal. Not too long ago he met (again) with the newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompelo and released three American hostages to him.
Could Kim afford to walk out of this all-important meeting with Trump? To be honest, he stands to gain more than the other parties. The North Korean economy is badly hurt by the United Nations sanctions and the pressure the Trump administration has put on China to severe economic relationships with the nation. This is a gamble he is ready to take, but he needs to get all the mileage he can get out of the meeting.
Experts are confident that the North Koreans will not abandon the meeting, just yet. They think Kim is using the latest rhetorics to “up his games” for maximum benefits for himself. He is a strategist who knows how to gain the attention of the world so as to have an upper hand in negotiations. While he is a leader not given to dramatics, he has the know-how of positioning himself in the best spot for maximum “lighting effects.” He would have had a good career as an actor, had he been given the choice by his parents.
While at his game, he knows he is got to be extra careful, or he plays himself into a regrettable tight corner with the adulation of the world. Kim realises the world is a tricky place that needs gentle treading if you do not want to lose your stride, and fall. History has so many leaders who had let their guards down when they thought their backs were well covered.
Although Kim really did not seem to need much of this reminder, he could well have been jolted to reality when John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Adviser, threw the Libya line into the Korean Peninsula debate. This is enough to understand his vulnerability in the whole issue of seeking world peace.
For Bolton, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi’s fate is a reminder to Kim. It was tempting but very unnecessary. It was careless for a Security Adviser to have gone the Libya route. It was nothing assuring or would it add value to the proposed deal with the North Koreans, rather it would make them more scared of giving up their chemical weapons. Ghadaffi is history, though not mainly because of his deal with the west, he was not a good reference point.
Bolton has warned that what his country wants to see from Kim and his people is “evidence that the proposed nuclear disarmament is real and not just rhetoric.” He continued: “One thing that Libya did that led us to overcome our scepticism was that they allowed American and British observers into all their nuclear-related sites. So it wasn’t a question of relying on international mechanisms. We saw them in ways we had never seen before.” These were no sweet words in the ears of Kim. This is a guy who had in recent times gone out of his way to show the world that he is committed to the Korean peace process.
The possibility of Kim meeting with Trump is not out of the window yet, but it is no assurance that this will change anything, in any way. The two leaders are reputed to be unpredictable, with Trump taking the lead in trash talk. They will be meeting for the first time, and the world will be looking at the body languages more than the process of the deal.
The meeting, if it holds, is no guarantee for success, but no doubt the start of a long road for North Korea. A long road to rehabilitation? A long road back to the starting block? Or a long road to the end of a “brand” of leadership in the Korean peninsula? Or a lonely road to Iran’s type of botched deal? Time will tell.
As written for the Diaspora Matters column, Sunday Vanguard May 20, 2018