26 May 2019 06:53 PM



Implications of Trump-Kim Summit: Nuclear Pays!

‘Iran should go nuclear as fast as possible’!

The meeting between US President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on June 12 was historic by any standards. It was not clear if the meeting would take place almost till it took place; the two leaders had exchanged personal insults and threats in the weeks before the summit. Therefore, the fact that the meeting took place at all is important by itself, irrespective of its outcome, which will be examined shortly.

Trump flew to Singapore straight from Canada, where he had attended a fractious G-7 summit. He could not have been in a very good mood, after his sharp disagreement with some of the closest US allies over issues relating to trade. Trump found himself virtually alone at the Summit; the optics were terrible—the other six looked like ganging-up against him.

In the event, Trump did well to land in Singapore looking cheerful. His body language while meeting Kim was friendly. The two men shook hands, posed for pictures, and held detailed talks. They even signed a joint statement outlining the results of their discussions.

In a press conference after the meeting, Trump also made a pledge to cancel military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, which surprised everyone, including South Korea and the Pentagon. Clearly, this was the extra mile that Trump walked.

In the joint statement, Trump promised “security guarantees” to Pyongyang and Kim committed to the “complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” without, however, setting any deadline for doing so.

This reflected a clear change in the US position: before the summit, it was demanding that Kim give up his nuclear weapons before any meeting could be held with Trump. The US had a single-point agenda: rollback of North Korea’s nuclear, and, preferably, also its missile capability. At the very least, the American side wanted that the commitment to denuclearise should include a clear time frame.

There was also some loose talk about applying the “Libya Model” to North Korea which must have alarmed Kim, and possibly South Korea and Japan, the two countries directly affected by NK’s nuclear capability.

In fact, pressure from these two countries, and particularly from the South Korean President Moon Jae-in, played a crucial role in persuading Trump to start a peace process with Kim. The reason is that the South Korean capital Seoul is within the range of North Korean artillery. For a long time now, North Korea has deployed thousands—according to one estimate around 15,000— of artillery pieces in the mountainous terrain along the border, ready to fire at Seoul at short notice.

Seoul is thus vulnerable to North Korea’s firepower, against which there is no defence. Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans would be killed if North Korea launched an artillery attack against Seoul. This has been North Korea’s trump card, before [and after] it acquired nuclear capability. And this is the sole reason why the US and the South Koreans, despite conducting all manner of military exercises, have not attacked North Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953.

Acquisition of nuclear and missile capability by North Korea only heightened the sense of vulnerability of South Korea, Japan, and possibly the US itself. It is, therefore, clear that the Trump-Kim summit was precipitated by North Korea’s military prowess. Otherwise, that country would have ended up as another Iraq, Libya, or Syria.

But it is necessary to recognise that the Summit is only the first step in a long process of bringing closure to the Korean issue. There are many pitfalls ahead, mainly on the American side. What has happened in Singapore is nothing very new, except the summit; we have seen such false starts before, during the Clinton and Bush 43 Administrations. Those were promising starts, but they fizzled out in acrimony and recriminations. There is no guarantee that the outcome this time around would be any different.

Essentially, the main problem between the two sides is the lack of trust between them, which has been caused by developments in their relations during the last seventy years. Restoring trust between the US and North Korea (NK) will require them to take a series of calibrated confidence-building measures. That will take time, patience, and good faith on both sides.

If the American establishment and the “deep state” think that NK can be pressurised into giving up his nuclear capability in a few months or years, it is mistaken. NK will only agree to do so when it believes that the US will stop undermining its security, and not unilaterally walk out of the bilateral agreement with NK [If and when it is signed], as it has recently done with the Iran Nuclear Deal [which was a multilateral agreement enshrined in a UNSC Resolution, and therefore much more difficult to walk out of].

While Trump may have signed a joint statement with Kim on June 12 in Singapore, there are indications that the Establishment and the “deep state” back home are not pleased with it. They will try every trick in their armoury to sabotage it, including “false flag” incidents and blackmailing Trump. And if these tricks fail, they will try to persuade the US Congress to refuse ratification of a possible peace treaty that Kim will demand, as a condition for denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

There are pitfalls on the NK side, too. Kim will not easily trust the Americans, who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Korean War, and have continued to do so, in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. He will demand ironclad guarantees including a UNSC resolution, and other types of assurances, before signing on the dotted line.

Kim’s patron, China, too, has its own calculations. It will not welcome NK’s slipping away from its grip completely. North Korea is one of the two Chinese lapdogs—the other being Pakistan—which China uses to keep Japan, the US, and India off-balance. China’s behaviour will need to be closely watched during the peace process.

Another country that would be closely monitoring the current developments on the Korean Peninsula is Iran, which faces an existential threat from the US and Israel. The Trump-Kim agreement is a mirror image of the US [plus 5]-Iran deal. While in the latter case Trump is walking away from a multilateral agreement aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program [when Iran does not have nuclear capability], in the former Trump has signed an agreement aimed at curbing NK’s nuclear program [when NK has nuclear capability].

Also, while Iran is being punished [with sanctions and threats of military action] for not having nuclear weapons, NK is being rewarded for having nuclear weapons! It would be totally understandable if Iran draws the conclusion that it must speed-up the acquisition of nuclear weapons because it has not gained much from not acquiring them. All that Iran has “gained” are harsh sanctions of all types and threats of military action.

So, what does Iran have to lose by going nuclear, when it is already losing a great deal by not going nuclear? Possible military action by the US and Israel? Iran can handle that: short-term pain for long term security. Countries such as North Korea and even India have suffered long-term pain [US and EU sanctions] for acquiring nuclear capability. There is a price to be paid for going nuclear and Iran will perhaps not mind doing so. It is left with no other alternative.

Moral of the story for Iran: Go nuclear as fast as possible.

[Niraj Srivastava is a former Ambassador of India who has served in several countries around the world, including the United States]