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6 June 2018

With Jonathan Pearlman

The risky summit

Next Tuesday at 9.00 am in Singapore, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will meet at the Capella hotel, the first such encounter between a US president and a North Korean leader. The aim is to negotiate a far-reaching deal to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program, but the two sides have already struggled to resolve who should pay for North Korea’s accommodation.

This minor spat is a reminder of the risk that the summit poses: it pushes a decades-old crisis closer to an outcome, without the diplomatic groundwork that would help to assure its success.

Trump thinks he can achieve a deal with North Korea. But this summit also makes the alternative more likely: a catastrophic war and unthinkable turmoil across South Korea, Japan and China, with devastating consequences across the region, including for Australia.

A meeting of enemies is cause for hope, especially when it involves a nation as isolated as North Korea. This summit, for instance, will mark the furthest Kim has travelled from home since he became leader in 2011.

But each side appears to be coming to the talks with a very different understanding of the other’s reasons for being there. Trump believes that his policy of “maximum pressure” – crippling international sanctions, along with his taunts and a professed willingness to use his nuclear button – has finally convinced Kim to compromise or face destruction. 

The problem is that, as is so often the case with North Korea, it is impossible to know if this is correct. Kim may be coming to the summit because he believes that his recent nuclear tests have been a success and have finally demonstrated to Trump and the international community that they have no choice but to engage with him. This would make it even less likely that Kim would dismantle a program that marks his only path to recognition and the legitimacy he seems to crave.

The summit is starting where most crisis resolution ends. Previous United States presidents chose not to meet with North Korean leaders because they had little confidence that it would deliver a deal that would last – to succeed in dismantling Kim’s nuclear program, any agreement would need to be in place, and adhered to, for at least a decade. 

In standard diplomatic negotiations, leaders are brought in only when the two sides are close to completing a deal; the leaders come in, if they do at all, to help resolve final points of contention. The Iran nuclear deal, for instance, which Trump recently abandoned, was 154 pages long and took more than two years to negotiate. It began with a series of secret talks and meetings in which each side tested the other’s sincerity. After the first such meeting – which took place at an airport in Oman in 2012 and lasted ten hours – three White House negotiators concluded that Iran was not genuine and cancelled further talks, which did not resume for more than six months. The negotiations were not concluded until 2015 and, whatever the deal’s drawbacks, official observers have repeatedly confirmed that Iran is complying with it.

This groundwork, as far as we know, has not occurred in the lead-up to next week’s summit in Singapore. North Korea enters the talks with a consistent record of deception about its nuclear program. Trump enters with his showman’s swagger, and may prove to be more interested in the theatrics of a deal than in its detail.

Trump may also be impatient, understandably, with the duration of this crisis, which has worked in North Korea’s favour. And this impatience may lead him to push the impasse toward an outcome, whatever it may be. He appears to honestly believe he can address the issue of North Korea, and he comes armed with a new crop of belligerent advisors, such as John Bolton, his national security adviser, who are deeply sceptical about the prospects for reaching a lasting agreement with Pyongyang. They have supported the summit but may also help convince Trump to be comfortable with failure, and all that it entails.


Bogged down in the South China Sea

“The US and the UK continue to undertake ‘freedom of navigation’ operations around the disputed features. Other countries such as Australia, India and Vietnam have issued public statements of support … Unless the international community wants to be accused of acquiescence to China’s activities, such ongoing freedom of navigation actions are fundamental.” Imogen Saunders,Policy Forum

Narendra Modi just had his big Indo-Pacific moment

“Modi, like most world leaders, is attempting a delicate balancing act in managing India’s relationship with China … Traditionally, India has focused little on defence diplomacy, sticking to its doctrine of non-alignment, but this is changing under a leader who is more confident on the world stage and is also being forced to engage in a crucial contest for influence.” Lisa Murray,[$] Australian Financial Review

The delicate dance of gender equality in Australia’s foreign policy

“By 2021, for every dollar we spend on aid, we will spend $11 on defence. For the price of a single submarine, or even the $3.8 billion the government reportedly intends to loan weapons manufacturers, we could fund almost the entire aid program for a year.” Caroline Lambert, Alice Ridge and Alex Lamb, DevPolicy Blog


Is Trump stringing Abe along?

“By meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore on 12 June, Trump hopes to emulate former US president George W Bush in 2001. The Gallup Poll showed Bush’s approval rating on 1 February 2001 to be only 57 per cent. But by 22 September, it had jumped to 90 per cent as a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.” Glen S. Fukushima,East Asia Forum

PNG to push out Facebook, taking a sharp turn into cyber censorship

“It’s likely the PNG government’s skirmish with Facebook has more to do with reining in political debate than anything else. Only time will tell if this is an empty threat or the government really will flick the off switch.” Danielle Cave,The Strategist (Australian Strategic Policy Institute)


Source: GlobalWebIndex (based on a survey of users aged 16 to 64)

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