After spending most of his presidency posing a nuclear-armed hothead, Kim Jong-un is now presenting himself as a man of peace. ‘I came here to put an end to the history of confrontation,’ he said on his historic visit to South Korea. Which might be so. But his real agenda may be to gain acceptance for North Korea's status as a nuclear power: holding an olive branch in one hand, and a seven-kilotonne bomb in the other.
The visit to the south comes ahead of his trips to meet Donald Trump, who has referred to Kim Jong-un as a ‘little rocket man’ and tweeted a photo boasting that his own nuclear button was larger and more effective than that of the North Korean leader. Yet sometime over the next six weeks the two men will confound those who saw them as warmongers intent on bringing the world to the brink of nuclear conflict by meeting in a yet-to-be disclosed location — ending two decades in which US-North Korean dialogue has been virtually nonexistent.
There are parallels in modern history of US presidents who started their terms in office accused of recklessness in world affairs, only to end up making diplomatic breakthroughs which had eluded apparently more conciliatory predecessors. It was Nixon, not Kennedy or Johnson, who normalised US relations with China; Reagan, not Carter, who achieved disarmament with the Soviet Union. To rattle sabres before making unexpected overtures for peace has become established as a tactic of Republican presidents.
Yet it should not be assumed that Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un will be as successful. On the contrary, it could all too easily backfire as the President, too eager to tweet that he has persuaded a bellicose Kim Jong-un to down his weapons, fails properly to read North Korean intentions.
Kim Jong-un’s announcement that he is to suspend nuclear tests and to close down a nuclear test site is a promising start. But it quickly became clear that this did not come close to the complete denuclearisation which has been demanded by the outside world. To pause from tests, a pledge not to use nuclear weapons first and not to transfer the technology to another state - these are all hallmarks of a responsible nuclear weapons state. Victor Cha, Korea Chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, has pointed out that this is a statement that North Korea can be a responsible nuclear weapons state. As he puts it: ‘No one believes this, but if they can get Trump to agree, that is all they need.’
North Korea has shown it has the ability to create atomic explosions, and has demonstrated it can launch long-distance missiles, even if they have been a little wayward in their journeys into the Pacific. What we don’t know is whether the country has the technology to put these two things together and produce a workable inter-continental nuclear weapon. But we do know that no country that has performed a nuclear test has ever given up weapons: as Mr Kim will know, possession of such weapons tends to mean one’s country is not invaded, nor are there any attempts to overthrow the regime.
The new US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, says he thinks that North Korea is nearly at the stage of producing a weapon which could reach the US. There is another interpretation, however: that North Korea is nowhere near doing this, and has pulled back on its nuclear programme before the extent of its competence becomes clear. Unless Kim Jong-un is prepared to dismantle his weapons programme and invite international weapons inspectors to verify this, there will always remain the prospect that design and development will continue, with tests set to resume at a later date.
The question is whether Trump, having got so far down the road towards the unexpected coup of a peaceful settlement with Kim Jong-un, will be able to restrain himself from declaring premature victory. One thing we have learned about the US President over the past 15 months is that he is driven by a rash and irresistible desire to press a large button — not the nuclear one but the ‘tweet’ button on his smartphone. He would love nothing more than to confound his opponents with news that he has talked ‘rocket man’ into giving up his rockets, but he is all too likely to do this even when Kim Jong-un has done nothing of the sort — and to respond to anyone who points this out by accusing them of being carriers of fake news.
It was possible to see method in Ronald Reagan’s dealings with the Soviets — he convinced them that they could not win an arms race before he raised the issue of disarmament. With Trump there is always a suspicion that he is acting on impulse, and without much discussion with his advisers. He has performed a similar flip on Chinese tariffs. In March, on the same day that he announced talks with Kim Jong-un, he declared a trade war with China, raising punitive tariffs and sending world markets into turmoil. Trade wars, he declared, were ‘easy to win’. Over the past week he has dispatched his trade secretary to China for trade talks, suggesting the two countries might be able to do a deal before the American tariffs — and China’s retaliatory tariffs — come into effect.
Trump might think this has made him look tough, and that he will now be negotiating from a position of strength, but what concessions is he hoping to extract from China that he couldn’t have done by initiating talks before his threats? There is no sign that China has suddenly announced that it will address issues of intellectual property and other genuine concerns that the US has had about Chinese industry in recent years. All Trump has achieved is to leave markets jittery, make US firms more concerned about investing in China and vice versa. The global economy began this year on a high point of confidence. Much of that has dissipated with the threats of trade wars.
Kim Jong-un has been characterised as an unpredictable, unknown quantity capable of lashing out at other countries without reason and with little thought to the interests of his people. That is not unusual among dictators. Much the same description, however, could be applied to Donald Trump — which is unusual among leaders of democratic nations. In their impulsive characters, we can hope, they might at least find something in common when they meet.