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Trusting Kim and Trump is Like Believing the Impossible

Duncan Bartlett





Duncan Bartlett


In the classic British children’s story Alice Through The Looking Glass, the Red Queen tells Alice, “Sometimes I believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”


I was reminded of those words when I met a South Korean diplomat recently who told me, “We would like to see the promise of peace emerging from something seemingly impossible.” He was talking of the much-anticipated summit between America’s Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.


A year ago, it would have seemed impossible to imagine such an event taking place. Then, after Mr. Trump said he would cancel the summit, it would have been impossible to still expect it go ahead in Singapore in June. Now there are signs that it will indeed happen. But those who expect it to lead to a lasting peace will need once again to imagine the unimaginable.


Trust issues


South Korea is not naive. Its government knows that the key to progress in any international negotiation is to build trust. The diplomat I spoke with was quick to admit in private that it is close to impossible to trust the North Koreans, given their long history of reneging on agreements. President Trump’s erratic behavior also undermines trust—the cancellation of the summit by the White House being a case in point.


However, diplomats thrive on a calm optimism because it is their job to keep hope alive. History has shown that during most seemingly intractable disputes, the promise of a resolution looks far off when the peace talks start. Nevertheless, conflicts are sometimes resolved in unexpected ways. So, in diplomatic circles across Asia, one can still hear prayers of hope being muttered that a sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula can finally be achieved.


Japan’s Support


The Japanese government is backing the idea of talks between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim. It is not particularly enthusiastic about the summit in Singapore, but will do nothing to prevent it.


Japan’s ambassador to London, Koji Tsuruoka, wishes the meeting success, but says that holding the summit is not, in itself, a goal. “The goal that the world is expecting is complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of North Korea,” he said.


“We’ve always been consistent in asking North Korea to comply with all the United Nations Security Council resolutions, which were unanimously adopted and represent the will of the people of the world. What we are now looking for is action which will bring us towards peace and stability,” said Ambassador Tsuruoka.



Reading Trump


The South Korean diplomat I met believes that “the Japanese always follow the lead of President Trump” when it comes to North Korea. But, like everyone else, Japan’s leaders are left checking their Twitter feeds to try to find out in which direction Mr. Trump’s thoughts are heading.


Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has been in regular touch with Mr. Trump but cannot completely trust his ally. His concern is that Donald Trump could become so focused on his America First agenda that he will compromise on protection of United States allies in Asia.


If the meeting goes ahead, Kim Jong-un is likely to say that any offer to scale back his nuclear program should be balanced by a reduction of the American military presence in South Korea and Japan. Would Mr. Trump offer concessions on that point if he felt he could extract a deal which would protect U.S. cities from missile attacks?


Seoul’s Concern


This a concern which must be shared by South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in, who met Mr. Abe in Tokyo in May. Mr. Moon is displaying immense patience as he skillfully shuttles between the two adversaries. He notes that “the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the establishment of a permanent peace are historic tasks that can neither be abandoned nor delayed.”


As he tries to get the summit back on track, the South Korean leader can take encouragement from recent tangible signs of progress. There have been no nuclear tests by North Korea since September 2017, and three American citizens who were held prisoners were released in May.



Tokyo Under Threat


These developments have helped create the impression of Kim Jong-un as a statesman, rather than a crazed dictator. But in Japan, Mr. Kim remains a sinister figure who has threatened to obliterate Tokyo. Mr. Abe has called the prospect of a nuclear-capable North Korea “absolutely unacceptable” and has said that the security situation is the severest since the Second World War.


Japan has the bitter memory of having been the only country to have suffered devastating atomic attacks. To put things in perspective, the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons. In 2017, the size of North Korea’s nuclear test was more than 10 times that at 160 kilotons. With the prevention of another catastrophe uppermost in his mind, Shinzo Abe has ordered a review of Japan’s defense capabilities and advocates constitutional reform to strengthen the military’s role.


A Clear Agenda


Mr. Abe also wants Mr. Trump to use America’s enormous military advantage to press North Korea into line and he wants clarity on what a peace deal and denuclearization actually mean in a Korean context.


For the talks to succeed, they require careful preparation, which is why a delay would be no bad thing from Japan’s perspective. As things stand, a lack of trust all round puts the summit in the high risk category. But for those with sufficient faith, nothing is impossible.



Duncan Bartlett is a regular contributor to Japan Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute, University of London. He also runs the news portal Japan Story, which contains articles, videos and podcasts. He is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a Research Associate at SOAS China Institute, University of London. He formerly worked in Tokyo for the BBC.