By Kalinga Seneviratne
The frenzied moves over the weekend of May 26-27 by leaders of South Korea and North Korea to revive the on-again, off-again North Korea-US summit, and pictures flashed across the region of the two Korean leaders warmly hugging each other for the second time within a month, are rapidly turning public opinion across the region in North Korea’s favour with the United States and President Donald Trump seen as the “evil”.
The pictures accompanying reports in Asian news media on Trump’s cancellation of the much anticipated summit always carry side-by-side a smiling affable North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and a stern-looking Trump.
The tone of the reports – though it is not explicitly said so – tends to lay blame on U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice-President Mike Pence for their belligerent rhetoric referring to the “Libyan solution”.
This perhaps hit a chord across Asia because the last thing it wants is a Western-instigated “Arab Spring” chaos in the region. Asia knows very well that such a scenario will only benefit the West, especially the American arms industry, and will put Asia’s economic progress back by generations.
On Sunday May 27, following his secret meeting with Kim Jong Un, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said that his North Korean counterpart has expressed his intention “to put an end to the history of war and confrontation” through a successful summit with the United States.
But Moon also reiterated that Kim has expressed concerns not about his ability to denuclearise but “on whether he could trust the United States to end its hostile policy and guarantee the security of his regime when the North denuclearises itself”.
Many Asian media commentaries tend to reflect this concern, even in staunchly pro-U.S. countries such as Japan and Singapore.
“It was fully predictable that there would be many twists and turns in the bilateral negotiations to bring an end to decades of hostile confrontation between the two countries,” noted Japan’s Asahi Shimbun in an editorial.
“Any major development concerning the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang would have huge implications for the future of the security landscape in Northeast Asia,” it went on to say. “The crux of the matter is for the two countries to reach an agreement that guarantees long term benefits.”
It added that the priority at the moment should be to avoid a situation like last year, which brought the Korean peninsula to the brink of war.
Ravi Velloor, Associate Editor of Singapore’s The Straits Times, noted that coming hours after the world media noted Kim’s desire to denuclearise by blowing up its test site, Trump’s withdrawal from the summit makes the United States lose more in the eyes of the world than North Korea.
“The US decision to cancel the summit will also reinforce the Chinese narrative that the U.S. was never serious about a solution for the Korean peninsula because continued tension gives Washington an excuse to place nuclear weapons in China’s periphery,” argued Velloor.
The Straits Times’ commentary was also critical of Bolton and Pence’s reference to Libya. “For his part, Mr Kim, who has no doubt taken note of Mr Trump’s decision to walk away from the nuclear deal signed with Iran by his predecessor, is acutely aware that the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was murdered in public two years after he surrendered his nuclear weapons programme,” noted Velloor.
“Any comparison of North Korean denuclearisation to the Libyan model was bound to have been received poorly by Mr Kim.”
China has also called on Kim and Trump to talk and settle their differences. “An end to hostilities and denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula are the goals that many countries have been working for in the past decades,” said the China Daily in an editorial, adding, “which is true of China, whatever Trump might suggest to the contrary.”
North Korea wants to hold talks with the United States on an equal basis, and its nuclear strategy is based on that concept, argued Dr Zhu Feng, Head of the School of International Studies at Nanjing University, in a commentary published by China Daily.
“DPRK (North Korea) is sincere about restoring peace on the Korean Peninsula and improving Pyongyang-Washington ties,” said Dr Feng. “In fact, equal treatment has been a consistent factor in the demands of the DPRK to hold peace talks. And perhaps that’s why Pyongyang has never agreed to abandon its nuclear programme.”
In a commentary, the Philippines’ Manila Times noted that “unbearable pressure” has been placed on the South Korean government by Trump’s unilateral actions in cancelling the summit.
“The regression virtually humiliated Moon’s administration,” noted the newspaper . “As Moon and his staff spared no efforts in mediating between Kim and Trump, it has been proved that at least on the matter of denuclearisation, the divergence between Pyongyang and Washington is much more significant than that between the two Koreas,” which would put pressure on the military alliance between South Korea and the United States.
In a lengthy article in the same newspaper on how North Korea has “cheated” on peace and denuclearisation deals in the past five decades, Kim Myong-sik, a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald, admits that current leader Kim Jong Un has caught the imagination of the South Korean people, which he attributes to good “acting skills” by the young leader.
“Kim, 35, or 36, carried an air of sincerity in his meetings with Moon, 65, and (Chinese leader) Xi, who turns 65 next month, but he was more relaxed in his tete-a-tete with South Korea’s leader at Panmunjeom, especially when their get-together progressed into an exclusive promenade and a dinner party,” noted Myong-sik.
He also pointed out that “our extremely competitive TV channels” have given the North Korean leader almost as much exposure as the president of the Republic of Korea and Koreans have come to see “Kim’s rather affable gestures”.
Myong-sik argued that through the decades of North Korean “deceptions” China has risen to G-2 status when North Korea advanced to virtual nuclear power status. “The new superpower should henceforth be far more responsible about ensuring global nuclear security than in the past, when it simply played host to a multilateral conference,” he said.
Rahul Pathak of The Straits Times noted that with doors suddenly being opened for the first ever summit of US and North Korean leaders, new terminology may emerge.
“Instead of complete, verifiable, and irreversible Denuclearization (CVID), one could settle for ‘sufficient’ denuclearisation (SVID),” he argued. “Mr Moon, a man with a vision, Mr Trump, a man with his eyes on the prize, and Mr Kim, with his cold calculations and a country to feed, may yet conjure something remarkable down the road. Their interests are aligned (and) it remains for the stars to follow suit.”