As Trump engages Putin, his deal with Kim collapses

After the Singapore summit, North Korea did not reciprocate US concessions.

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    US President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un react during their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018 [Anthony Wallace/Pool via Reuters]
    US President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un react during their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018 [Anthony Wallace/Pool via Reuters]

    As US President Donald Trump sits down for talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, he doesn't seem to have much to show for a month and a half of international high-level meetings and diplomatic effort.

    Basking in his self-proclaimed "art of the deal" acumen, the US president has upended the international system by alienating allies and reaching out directly to foes. 

    In the span of just a few weeks, Trump managed to anger US allies in Europe and North America, calling Canadian PM Justin Trudeau "weak", identifying the EU as a "foe" and putting a US-UK trade deal in doubt.

    Meanwhile, he has heaped praise on autocratic leaders the world over, boasting about his "very good relationship" with Russia's Vladimir Putin and describing North Korea's Kim Jung-un as "very honourable". 

    Yet, there is little evidence to suggest his "fire and fury" diplomacy is working. Trump's self-proclaimed success in engaging North Korea is on the verge of becoming a failure, exposing the paucity of his strongman diplomacy.

    Much against the advice of some allies and leading experts, Trump pushed through with an unprecedented summit with the North Korean leader without any preconditions.

    The outcome of the historic meeting in Singapore was a generic statement, which reaffirmed both sides' commitment to ending the decades-long conflict in the Korean Peninsula.

    Pyongyang made no specific commitment to denuclearisation, but managed to dampen its isolation and enhance its international standing by holding direct talks with the US leadership.

    To the surprise of almost everyone, including North Korea, Trump provided an additional concession, which rattled allies such as South Korea and delighted rivals such as China. He offered to cancel upcoming joint military exercises with Seoul in order to build confidence with Pyongyang.

    China, which has opposed US military presence in the Korean Peninsula, welcomed Trump's concessions, while gradually relaxing enforcement of sanctions against its North Korean ally.

    Having prematurely secured major concessions from the US, North Korea has found little incentive to reciprocate and has effectively undermined Trump's "maximum pressure" strategy.

    In late June, reports emerged detailing Pyongyang's expansion of nuclear facilities and its arsenal in advance of the Singapore summit. Trump was quick to respond to growing doubts about the results of his diplomatic efforts with North Korea, saying talks were "going well".

    This strategic debacle came out on full display during the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's third visit to Pyongyang in early July. The US diplomat not only failed to secure any concrete promises from his hosts, but was also snubbed by the North Korean supreme leader. 

    When the US delegation brought up the issue of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation (CVID) of North Korea, Kim pushed back vociferously.

    Shortly after Pompeo's departure, devoid of diplomatic niceties, the North Korean government decried the meeting as "very concerning", with both sides now stuck in a "dangerous phase that might rattle our willingness for denuclearisation that had been firm".

    With characteristic defiance, North Korea made it crystal clear that it won't give up its nuclear weapons under any circumstances.

    As a result, Washington is confronting a diplomatic cul-de-sac in the Korean Peninsula. A visibly dejected Pompeo admitted that the "road ahead will be difficult and challenging" since it has now become clear what North Korea's red lines are.

    The problem is that if Trump were to choose to return to his prior brinkmanship, threatening North Korea with "preemptive war", the US will almost certainly find itself isolated this time. After all, Trump has helped transform the image of the North Korean supreme leader from a mad villain into a young peacemaker.

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    Moreover, it's unlikely that the Kim regime or its key allies such as China and Russia, which have opposed military intervention and sanctions, will take Trump's threats seriously this time. And as months go by, alongside Russia and China, key US allies such as South Korea will likely start pushing for the relaxation of sanctions in exchange for the de-escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

    In retrospect, the Trump-Kim summit can end up as the formal, yet inadvertent, recognition of North Korea as the newest member of the club of nuclear powers. This is almost the complete opposite of what Trump promised: de-nuclearisation of North Korea. 

    With diminishing bargaining power, what the Trump administration can best hope for, barring any major turn in events, is limited arms control arrangements with Pyongyang in exchange for massive economic benefits and precious diplomatic recognition.

    It remains to be seen whether this would be acceptable to the US political establishment and some of its major allies such as Japan. What is clear is that, in exchange for a photo opportunity, Trump heavily undermined US strategic leverage over Pyongyang.

    As Andrei Lankov, a leading expert on North Korea, wrote, the Trump administration is "heading towards a major debacle at remarkable speed, even faster than one expected."

    And if Kim, the leader of small, impoverished North Korea, is able to play Trump and get what he wants out of him, then what can we expect from a strongman like Putin?

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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