A historic summit


THE Sentosa Island, the venue for tomorrow’s summit in Singapore between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was once known as the “island of death from behind” (Pulau Belakang Mati). Will the summit eliminate forever the chances of the Korean Peninsula falling victim to death from above?

All one can say at the moment is that the very fact that the summit is taking place itself is something to be rejoiced at. This is a summit many thought would never happen and many others view with misgivings. At one time, Trump himself had second thoughts about going ahead with the meeting and backed out only to change his mind two days later. But the important thing is that Trump and Kim who were trading insults at each other until recently are going to meet face to face in a vastly changed atmosphere. Whatever may be his other faults, Trump deserves credit for agreeing to meet Kim even if it meant swallowing his pride.

Critics including some Democrats say the summit is a victory for the North Koreans, whatever the outcome. They have a point. But then they ignore one major flaw in US diplomacy toward North Korea. If all previous attempts to deal with North Korea and to get its behavior changed had failed miserably, it was only because the US was making maximalist demands that the former was sure to reject. In the beginning, even Trump, like all his predecessors, was under the impression that Kim will sign away all of his nukes and missiles just because an American president has agreed to hold talks with him.

But Kim knows that to solve the problem “once and for all” to Washington’s satisfaction will only create more problems for him and his people later on. That is why he reacted furiously when Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton cited Libya as a model for North Korea to follow.

Bolton was referring to Muammar Qaddafi’s 2003 decision to ship all his nuclear weapons, missiles and biochemical weapons out of the country. But what Kim remembered was the tragic end of Libya’s long-term strongman in a Western-assisted uprising in 2011 and the chaos and violence that followed. The North also resents being compared with Libya because, unlike the North African country, it has mastered the nuclear cycle and is now the world’s eighth nuclear power, though undeclared.

By distancing himself from Bolton’s remarks, Trump seems to have conceded both points: One, US no longer considers the Libyan model applicable to North Korea. Second, it acknowledges that the North is a nuclear power. Now nobody expects Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal, however tempting may be the price offered by the US.

So the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” as an “all-in-one” event is now out of question. This does not mean that Singapore is hosting a Potemkin summit, forcing Trump to leave the city state empty-handed, as many fear. That is not in the interest of the North either. Kim may agree to a phased process that probably would require at least a decade, not a quick disarmament.

He may also agree to formalize the current suspension of nuclear and missile testing. US can also demand a halt to the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium and transfer, if any, of nuclear technology or expertise to other states. In short, the summit may work out a formula that will leave Kim with his nukes and Trump with high hopes of Nobel Peace Prize. It may also help soothe tensions in the Korean Peninsula and pave the way to negotiations aimed at a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War that currently is subject only to the 1953 armistice.

Pyongyang may also offer to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT) and sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).