9 March 2018

Trump is right to meet Kim, but an effective deal looks unlikely


He has big hair, and lives in a fantasy palace. He makes alarming statements about using nuclear weapons, and he hires and fires aides on a whim. He is an isolationist, and he wants to bring peace to the Korean peninsula. No, not the American president; Donald Trump only spends his weekends at Mar-a-Lago. We are talking of Kim Jong-Un, the preposterous and vile tyrant of North Korea.

Yesterday’s announcement of the first meeting between the leaders of North Korea and the United States is good news for globalists, as advocates of the post-1945 American-led order are now called. Globalism is not always good news. If, for instance, you are – or more probably, used to be – a steel worker in Ohio or South Wales, then globalism has been bad news for you and your town. If, however, you are living in brainwashed terror in North Korea, then globalism has just raised the possibility to the end of your suffering – and not by a mushroom cloud.

The 2016 presidential election was decided by a reaction against globalism, and for the highest selfishness of putting domestic interest first. But the national interest of a great power is not always the same as the domestic interest of its voters. In last week’s episode of White House reality television, we watched the spontaneous expulsion of Gary “Globalist” Cohn. In Thursday’s more scripted episode, South Korean officials and whoever happened to be in Trump’s staff this week announced the boldly globalist move of talks with North Korea.

This is the Age of Disruption, and the optimists of Wall Street and Silicon Valley instruct us to relish it. Trump is President Disruption, elected to break things. One of things that needs breaking is the calcified thinking that afflicts the State Department. In a way, this calcification reflects the success of George F Kennan’s containment doctrine and the post-Cold War dividend. America’s post-1945 policies worked. But temporary improvisations, like the division of the Korean Peninsula and the isolation of Cuba, became institutionalised as enduring principles.

Today, some of these principles have become what William Blake called “mind-forg’d manacles”, as time-bound and restrictive as one of Kim Jong-Il’s jumpsuits. So President Obama was right when he tried to bring an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis. And President Trump is right to try to bring an end to the Korean War.

The early 21st century has seen the weakening of America’s global position, and a consequent weakening of its globalist policies. If these are to continue as the guarantors of the world system, then they need revision. For the alternative is a world system run by China, with second-tier bullies like Russia and Turkey working the margins.

The stability of the global economy, and the peace of the Pacific region in particular, depends on the management of the US-Chinese relationship as China asserts its economic and strategic interests. Keeping the Korean Peninsula in a state of tension was a useful strategy for China when it was poor, bicycle-powered and isolated. Keeping an army in South Korea was a useful if expensive strategy for the United States when it was holding the line in the Cold War. Developing nuclear weapons was a cheap way for North Korea to multiply its potential for instability and war, and insulate itself against both China and America.

Today, however, neither the US or China gains from the situation in the peninsula. The Chinese are already winning the peace in the Pacific region. The Americans do not want to fight a war on the wrong side of the Pacific on behalf of a strategic concept that expired decades ago. In conventional foreign policy analysis, this creates a common interest between America and China, and the prospect of a shared dividend.

But who knows what Kim Jong-Un thinks? And how to reach goals – the denuclearisation of the peninsula, and then the softening of the border between North and South Korea – which are inimical to his survival?

Right as Obama may have been to engage with Cuba, his methods were soon proven to be flawed. In the two years after Obama “set a new course” on Cuba, the regime increased its repression of political opponents and religious freedoms. When American businesses returned to Cuba, they traded with state-run monopolies. Rather than helping Cuba’s nascent private sector, the dollars strengthened the regime, for the state-run companies belonged to the Castro family and its friends in the military.

Similarly, Obama’s engagement with Iran has yet to produce the desired outcome. The regime, bolstered at home and abroad by $1.7 billion in cash, is still in absolute power. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are undimmed. This week, an Iranian official boasted that Iran could produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon “in two days”.

Previous American attempts to negotiate with North Korea do not set an encouraging precedent. The Agreed Framework of 1994 was supposed to produce denuclearisation and an end to North Korea’s isolation, but the deal collapsed when it emerged that North Korea, having agreed not to produce more plutonium, was secretly exploring ways to produce missile-grade uranium.

The 2012 moratorium, under which North Korea suspended work on long-range missiles and nuclear testing in return for food aid, collapsed when North Korea launched a satellite with a rocket that could also be used to launch a missile. In other words, the North Korean regime are proven liars.

Now, it seems that North Korea is returning to the 2012 agreement: offering a freeze on weapon and missile development in return for food, or money, or the lifting of sanctions, or anything else that will preserve the regime. But negotiation, and even the reaching of agreement, are stalling tactics for North Korea. A transformative deal would transform the dictatorship out of existence, and lead to the collapse of the North Korean state.

Trump has tweeted some passing thoughts on the preconditions of the meeting, which may take place as early as May. “Kim Jong-Un talked about denuclearisation with the South Korean representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!”

The Pyongyang regime has long desired this level and style of contact. According its delusional worldview, North Korea is a regional power. It is a regional power according to everyone else, too, because it has nuclear weapons and a missile program that Dr Strangelove would envy. Those assets are the source of the regime’s survival. Kim Jong-Un is unlikely to trade them away. For North Korea, the art of the deal is to make no deal at all.

Dominic Green is the author of 'The Double Life of Dr Lopez' and 'Three Empires on the Nile'.