I never expected the summit between the US President and Kim Jong-un would materialize as it became clear the North Korean dictator would not accede to Donald Trump’s demands that a meeting should culminate with Pyongyang promising to rapidly scrap its nuclear program and missiles in a “comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible” manner.
Trump had heaped scorn on previous US administrations for failing to halt North Korea developing nuclear missiles or being duped into giving aid to Pyongyang in return for promises to do so that were subsequently broken. Surely he wouldn’t show up for a meeting which would yield only yet more unenforceable pledges of future disarmament by the North?
But, despite following closely Trump’s erratic behavior since he became president, I still under-estimated his capacity for mendacity and illusion and I believed that more serious figures in his administration would rein him in from pressing ahead with the Singapore summit fraught with risks to seriously harm America’s interests.
However, in recent months Trump has booted out some of the key wise heads that used to do that – like national security adviser general HR McMasters and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The remaining “adults” at the White House were helpless to prevent Trump blowing up last weekend’s G7 Conference in Canada, edging the world closer to a major trade war.
While having no compunction about insulting fellow G7 leaders and damaging relations with some of America’s closest allies, Trump again displayed his admiration for two of the world’s most odious dictators. He called Kim Jong-un, who has butchered countless numbers of his own people and trampled their human rights, a “ man of honor”.
And he lobbied for Russia’s re-admission to the G7. Moscow was kicked out for invading Ukraine, thereby shattering the world order forbidding aggression that the US had painstakingly forged since WW2.
Trump referred to Ukraine’s invasion as “something” that happened a long time ago (2014) and rather than blaming the perpetrator, Vladimir Putin, he suggested it was the fault of former President Barrack Obama for not opposing it. As if Moscow had asked Washington’s permission to launch the invasion.
Tomorrow’s Singapore Summit may well prove to be Trump’s feverish ascent of, within a mere few days, the second of twin peaks of diplomatic insanity.
He is so desperate for something to present as a major triumph to his diehard followers that he seems willing to do that regardless of further damaging America’s international reputation or endangering some of her allies.
Trump became known to millions by hosting TV reality shows, which in fact are about a made-up (alt-) reality, as in the real world people do not conduct their love-life or present business schemes under the gaze of TV cameras and media stars; they know they aren’t going to die in their quest for desert-island survival yards from a film crew. But this appeal to an alt-reality enabled Trump to become president and he has used the method to substitute a roller-coaster of outrageous trash-talk and transient thrills for consistent policy and substantive achievement. It seems to work for his core supporters and that’s enough for Trump.
This most spectacular episode of the diplomatic reality show began 18 months ago with Trump and Un hurling juvenile insults at one another and threatening to obliterate each other’s countries. The idea of holding a summit emerged serendipitously as a way for both leaders to save face without resorting to violence.
All good shows require surprises, twists and setbacks. And thus Trump cancelled the summit when North Korea started balking at the US insistence on junking the nukes. As that was the whole purpose for the summit and North Korea egregiously insulted US Vice President Mike Pence and national security adviser John Bolton, it was proper to ditch the meeting at that point unless Pyongyang stated unambiguously it was ready to give upon its weapons.
But because Trump had accepted Kim Jong Un’s proposal for a summit without consulting his own State Department or security officials and “owned” the process, he realized the cancellation might become a high-profile loss of prestige for him. So a few days later Trump announced the summit was back on. He said the summit might now be the start of a process – ie not what he had previously promised. But the stakes were immense to make the outcome appear a momentous success.
So what we are likely to witness in Singapore is the summit of cynicism. Instead of any clear agreement to scrap North Korea’s nukes something else will be dressed up as a victory for Trump. One strong possibility is that in return for easing western sanctions against Pyongyang Trump will secure an official end to the Korean War.
The Korean conflict ended in 1953 with the division of the peninsula into North and South but with no formal peace treaty – only an armistice agreement.
Trump didn’t know much about the Koreas at all before he started his tweet war with Kim Jong-un. By his own words he seemed surprised to discover recently that South Korea was an important trading partner of the US. He has also said that he hasn’t done a lot of prepping for the summit because he considers it’s mostly about “attitude.” Rather than, say, knowledge?
History is certainly not his strong point and it is highly likely he only learned about the lack of a formal peace treaty within the last few weeks.
Trump has repeatedly portrayed his mission to the Singapore summit as one to save the world and has suggested he deserves a Nobel Peace prize for his efforts.
So although a formal peace treaty will alter little if anything in the real world, in the alt-reality world of Trump and his supporters flourishing an important-looking document that secures “peace in our time” is probably a top priority for Trump.
What he might cede to Kim Jong-un for his signature worries many US officials and Western governments. It terrifies South Korea and Japan – the two countries most immediately affected by North Korea’s nuclear capability.
They see that Trump’s eagerness to deal with Kim Jong Un has already rewarded the dictator handsomely in PR terms and tightened his tyrannical hold over his own people. They fear that in order to secure the appearance of a triumph at the summit Trump may scale back the American forces and weapons based in South Korea that act as a vital deterrent to North Korean aggression.
However, Trump’s reality show is only bent on winning the immediate ratings war. It’s about illusion to convince his supporters he’s conjured something historical and great for them. What actually happens next will be decided on the hoof in another bizarre episode.