The Irish Times view on US-North Korea relations: Trump being played by Kim

Pyongyang’s current tactics – regional sabre-rattling accompanied by direct appeals to Trump’s vanity – are serving its interests well

 

Six weeks on from the symbolic apogee of the current rapprochement between the leaders of North Korea and the United States, when Donald Trump crossed the 38th parallel for a historic handshake with Kim Jong-un, it’s the pessimists who feel vindicated. After that meeting at the Demilitarised Zone, Trump announced that official-level talks would soon begin between the two sides. No such talks have taken place.

This is a recurring pattern. On three occasions now, Trump and Kim have held high-profile meetings – in Singapore, Hanoi and most recently on the Korean border – but each time, the absence of any serious negotiations in the background had ensured that no real progress has been made. Granted, it’s better that the two leaders are trading empty pleasantries rather than threats, as they were in early 2018, but the situation remains highly volatile.

Since June 2018, the concessions – with the exception of the repatriation of the remains of some US soldiers – have all come from the US side

That was underlined on Saturday, when Pyongyang fired what appeared to be two short-range missiles in what South Korea interpreted as a “show of force” against US-South Korea joint military exercises. Instead of chiding Kim for testing missiles that directly threaten two US allies, Japan and South Korea, Trump played them down and spoke of a “very beautiful letter” he had received from the North Korean dictator in recent days. Trump said Kim had sent “a long letter, much of it complaining about the ridiculous and expensive exercises.”

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Trump is being played by a cannier opponent. Since the two leaders first met in June 2018, the concessions – with the exception of the repatriation of the remains of some US soldiers – have all come from the US side. Among the most significant have been those face-to-face meetings, denied by previous US administrations but sought by the Kim dynasty as a means of giving it international standing and legitimacy.

For Kim, the biggest prize is relief from international sanctions. The White House wants North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons first, but US intelligence agencies believe Kim has no intention of doing that. And why would he, given that Trump, through his coddling of the dictator, continues to demonstrate the clout that those weapons give Pyongyang.

After the bilateral meeting last month, Trump hinted the US position could shift towards a phased approach in which some sanctions could be lifted in the course of negotiations – a retreat from the maximalist position that Kim baulked at earlier this year. Some reports even suggested Trump would be prepared to accept a freezing of the North’s nuclear stockpile at current levels rather than the total dismantling of the arsenal.

That will have encouraged Kim, reassuring him that Pyongyang’s current tactics, established for well over a year – regional sabre-rattling accompanied by direct appeals to Trump’s vanity – are serving its interests well.

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