By Amb (Retd) Sheel Kant Sharma*
These recent weeks have shown extraordinary results in the Korean Peninsula. There is an interesting ring in President Trump announcing that DPRK was “no longer a nuclear threat” with what President Reagan had declared at the height of Cold War tensions in the mid-1990s, that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
In the 1980s, the Soviet Union was leading a fairly enduring campaign about the Reagan administration pushing the planet to the nuclear brink. Reagan’s declaration signified assurance and calmed anxiety among the allies. Trump’s line also sets at rest the fears sparked by the tit-for-tat nuclear war talk. Between these two statements by Reagan and Trump, the latter is indeed the subject of far greater scrutiny and scepticism. Nonetheless, no one has questioned its positive impact, no matter how unpredictable the praxis of the Singapore Summit may turn out to be.
There is an underlying leitmotif, despite the lapse of decades of tumult and massive transformations, in these two historically separate assurances. This leitmotif is that nuclear weapons, despite their dangers, might not in the final analysis figure centrally in shaping relations between adversaries. Nuclear weapons in the control of Moscow and Washington even today remain menacingly huge. However, Reagan and Gorbachev had removed the overpowering angst by opening vistas of political transformation. The political ‘horse’ pulled the disarmament cart, not the other way around.
The political atmosphere in the Korean Peninsula has changed so substantially that disarmament appears to be relegated to more as an act of faith than a detailed step-by-step mutual accord. And, all the protagonists are none too worried even as many might harbour doubt. So long as Kim plays ball and the two Koreas keep moving toward rapid normalisation, US statements would seem to show no disruptive trend, while China and Russia express satisfaction.
Contrast this with developments in West Asia, i.e. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal, which was feared to have grave implications for the Korean Peninsula. In the end, however, it did not particularly spike North Korea’s anxiety. Moreover, The New York Times has since come out with an extensive account detailing how, since summer 2017, “secret spy meetings, talks between entrepreneurs and an unreported role for President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner” might have laid the ground work for the Trump-Kim Summit. These meetings, initiated by high-level official on behalf of Kim, also likely involved business deals. There could be some correlation between such speculation and the invocation in various ways in President Trump’s commentaries, including a video shown in Singapore about the bright future that awaits North Korea. This analysis might spur queries then as to the avowed purpose of the nuclear war talk in 2017. One answer may be that though great power diplomacy has by now perfected the art of drawing global attention through scary talk about nuclear weapons, beneath it, there might be a political train that both sides steer to their advantage. One side might hold the reigns of global markets, sanctions and ‘maximum pressure’, while the other side might reinforce national consolidation, albeit at great cost.
Trump perhaps hinted in his Singapore press conference that Iran too ought to take a leaf out of Kim’s playbook. The rising tide of public sentiment in Iran and the rapid descent of the Iranian Riyal to 90,000 to US$ 1 might tighten pressure on Tehran. Although Tehran’s official stance remains resolute, is it time to imagine – perhaps counter-intuitively – that in the success so far of Trump’s diplomacy, there may be a message from North Korea to Iran? If the pressure of greater sanctions were to make a dent in Iran’s position – although that is a remote possibility given the realities of the region – would it mark another diplomatic success for Trump?
A weightier question is whether in the new international order being shaped by right-wing ascendancy, the painstaking work of disarmament-type minutiae that figure in the JCPOA would have any relevance? The sparse texts that have emerged from the excellent atmospherics witnessed in Singapore give different signals. The Summit was an unqualified success of high-level diplomacy, and the Iran deal, according to its critics, an utter disaster despite its elaborate implementation. What does that signify for prospects of old-fashioned disarmament today?
Chinese, Russian, South Korean and Japanese statements welcoming the Trump-Kim Summit also delicately point to more arduous work towards accomplishing denuclearisation. Conflicting nuances about what comprises denuclearisation, extensive, inter-related steps involved in such a process, insistence on the give-and-take by all sides, and the potential for huge gains for the protagonists – these were the stuff of the six-party talks, too, which led nowhere. Would these inconvenient realities return to haunt the negotiators again? In Chinese statements issued during Kim’s visit last week, there is substantial throwback to the hard issues. Going by Trump’s tweets, however, one should not overly worry since the big step has been taken. The rest should fall in place in due course, while maximum pressure and sanctions endure. In this context, the US decision to extend the 2008 emergency provisions about North Korea to maintain sanctions should not be seen as a contradiction. The 2008 situation was very different from today – North Korea then had defiantly conducted nuclear tests but posed no direct threat to the US mainland.
The takeaway from Singapore may have more to do with the direct threat to the US which appears to have abated, according to Trump. As to the other ramifications of North Korean nuclear capability and the threat it poses – these will persist, pending the promised follow-up to Singapore (and the Summit Declaration by the two Koreas in March 2017). That North Korea may carry on still with nuclear research or further uranium enrichment may then just be a matter of detail.