At 34, Kim Jong Un Defeats Trump, Twice His Age

Published: June 13, 2018 11:51 IST
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When on the lawns of the White House, Narendra Modi suddenly moved to gather to his 56-inch chest a startled and somewhat embarrassed Donald Trump, Modi seems by some process of osmosis to have passed on his DNA to Trump as what we have witnessed in Singapore is the ultimate Event Management test - the focus being entirely on the optics, to the neglect of the substance. The winner clearly is DPRK chairman Kim Jong Un, who has got what he sought while yielding nothing but tired old clichés to his US counterpart. That, of course, is a net gain for the world - for while Trump achieved none of his bilateral goals, the Doomsday Clock has been put back a few seconds.

Actually, Singapore was not where Kim won battle honours. That he had achieved on November 28, 2017, when he test-fired his Hwasong-15 Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile that gave Trump the heebie-jeebies. The "Little Rocket Man" showed that the US mainland was within his range. When, just 22 days later, he delivered his New Year's Day address in which he reiterated a 20-year-old pledge to rid the entire Korean peninsula, both its North and its South, of nuclear weapons, and thus remove forever the omnipresent threat to his country, his regime and his family, he threw Trump the life-line which Trump grabbed with both hands. The US could not afford to remain in the sights of "an obviously mad man", as Trump had described Kim just a few months ago, who not only had nuclear warheads but also the missiles to target the mainland and eventually rain "fire and fury" on the White House itself.

Within days of Kim's address, Trump was suing for peace and tweeted in early March that the "deal with North Korea is very much in the making". As Isaac Stone noted in an article supportive of Trump in The Atlantic Monthly: "Accepting the reality of a nuclear North Korea is more reasonable than believing there is a way to denuclearize North Korea without sparking a devastating war". 

The Trump establishment had, however, to cover itself in respectability so that it was not perceived by its own people as going to Singapore in a beggar's rags with a begging bowl in its hands. So, "denuclearization" of Kim's North Korea was set as the goal to be attained at the Singapore summit. In the words of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the very eve of the summit, "a complete and verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is the only outcome the United States will accept". Was that feasible? 

Bob Drogin of The Los Angeles Times was of the view that Trump's chances of getting that were "slim to none". Nicholas Burns (known to Indians as the State Department's point man for Bush Jr.'s nuclear-deal with Dr. Manmohan Singh) had earlier argued: "It would not be rational for (Kim) to give up his nuclear weapons. That is the only card he has". Burns added that Kim well knows "what happened to Qaddafi and he knows what happened to Saddam Hussein when they gave up their Weapons of Mass Destruction. They lost their lives, and regimes and families" (quoted by Abigail Tracy in Vanity Fair). And that precisely is why, as Tracy points out, "three successive US administrations have failed to thwart three successive generations of Kims".

The difference is that Kim Jong Un's father and grandfather were getting there. Un actually got there once he had the means to target the US itself and not just be a general menace. That is when the "short and fat" Kim, as Trump had called him before Hwasong-15 was tested, grew taller than Trump. One has to hand it to the businessman in Trump: he knows when to call it quits.

So the Trump rodomontade began. "I think," he announced, "in the first minute I will know". He did not need any detailed briefing or any prior consultations with his own National Security Council because "I feel that Kim Jong Un wants to do something great for his people, and he has that opportunity, and he won't have that opportunity again". For Trump, it was his "maximum pressure" that had done the trick and the North Korean economy had been so squeezed that Kim was on his knees seeking the lifting of sanctions that were really biting.

Then Trump being Trump added that as he saw the "cannons" being fired across the ocean, he also saw the lovely ocean view and could see in his mind's eye condominiums scraping the sky to get apartments with that magnificent view. Kim, he persuaded himself to believe, would drop his nuclear programme in exchange for the dropping of sanctions and to get the billions he would receive in US investments. Hence, Trump reassuring himself with the delightful "feeling that this one-time opportunity will not be wasted".

In the event, the Sentosa Joint Statement makes no mention of lifting sanctions and contains nothing of significance regarding denuclearization beyond Kim's "reaffirmation" (note: not "affirmation" because Kim is only repeating the standard North Korean formula that is decades old) of his commitment to the "denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" - note, not just the denuclearization of his country but the whole of the Korean peninsula, North and South, which is a polite Korean way of saying, "Yankee, go home"!

Trump just failed (and fails) to understand that a country like the Democratic Republic of Korea (a name Trump has never used orally but was forced to concede in his Joint Statement with Kim) cannot be "bought off" as it has behind it a full history of a century's struggle against immense odds with which the Kim family has been intimately associated since the uprising against the Japanese on March 1, 1919, just under a hundred years ago, in which Kim Il Sung's mother, Kang Ban Suk, was so involved that the family had to flee to Manchuria to escape Japanese retribution. There, at the age of 14, Kim Il Sung founded the "Down with Imperialism Union", and, by the age of 17, was the youngest member of the South Manchurian Communist Movement. So effective a guerilla leader did he prove in the war against the Japanese in his Dongnipgun (Liberation Army) that in 1945, the Soviet General Terentil Shtykov chose him, then aged but 33, to chair the People's Provisional Committee established on January 1, 1946, under the overall aegis of the Soviet Civil Authority. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Kim family and their country have faced immense privations but all the Kims have remained steadfast in their commitment to the twin principles on which they have built their harsh regime: "juche" (self-reliance) and "songun" (military front: fourth largest standing army in the world, just behind India, for a country with a population less than our Delhi-NCR!)

Their opponents have included not just South Korea's Syngman Rhee and his successors, as well as a series of American Presidents starting from Harry Truman, but also the Soviet and Chinese governments that tried to get Kim Il Sung overthrown in 1956 as they favoured the Yan'an faction that pushed the Chinese line against the relatively independent nationalism sought by Kim Il Sung. That uneasy relationship with China (which withdrew its troops from North Korea as long ago as October 1958) has continued right through to his grandson, Kim Song Un's accession in 2013, when the youngest Kim got two senior relatives, his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, assassinated because he thought they were being picked by the Chinese to run a coup against him.

His father withstood the 1994-98 famine that killed "240,000 to 420,00 Koreans" after devastating floods compounded the disaster brought on when Soviet food supplies petered out with the collapse of the Soviet Union - a situation of which Bill Clinton thought he could take advantage by pushing for an "Agreed Framework", but which Un's father, Kim Song-Il, reneged on after he got the economic situation under relative control.

In the light of this ability to withstand pain, it is perhaps no accident that sanctions, on which the US lays so much reliance, found no place in Kim's public remarks at Sentosa and are not even mentioned in the Join Statement - although Pompeo had threatened on the very eve of the summit that "sanctions will remain until North Korea completely and verifiably eliminates its weapons of mass destruction programs", including, presumably, its stockpile of chemical and biological weapons. Kim swatted off the sanctions as if they were meddlesome flies.

It is in this context that one has to assess Trump's major concession of ending joint military exercises with South Korea - a move that has left South Korea flabbergasted, with the South Korean President's spokesperson muttering, "We need to try to understand what President Trump said". Is this the first step towards the US fully withdrawing militarily from the Korean theatre, thus ending the "existential threat" to Kim's Korea even before any significant denuclearization has taken place? 

Meanwhile, Kim, for his part, has achieved a public relations coup by apparently blowing up his testing site at Punggye-Ri and following that up with his last-minute post-Joint Statement commitment to dismantling one missile engineering site, but when it comes to his armoury of nuclear weapons and long-range delivery vehicles, there is such a long way to go that even if Trump were to get a second term, he would not be around to see the "denuclearization" of the North - at least not till the US removes its nuclear umbrella from South Korea and Japan and agrees to tuck away its nuclear weapons and ICBMs with its teddy bears when it goes to bed.

Kim has got international recognition for what till the other day was his "rogue regime"; he has parleyed on equal terms with the highest representative of the most powerful power on earth; secured "absolutely" an invitation to the White House; even, perhaps, a Western hamburger franchise. He has been portrayed by the US President as "a transformational leader", revelling in his "terrific relationship" with yesterday's "mad man", and "very proud of what has taken place today". "We both," added Trump, "want to do something; we both are going to do something. We have developed a very special bond". But no one knows what is that "something".

Trump has "committed" himself "to providing security guarantees" to Kim's Korea while Kim only "reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" and has only given up what he had voluntarily surrendered even before arriving in Sentosa. Neither Pompeo's threats nor Trump's blandishments have moved him; at 34, he has cowed down a President twice his age and a Great Power that finds its Asian footprint fading. That is quite an achievement. All he now needs now is a less hilarious hair-cut. 

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(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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