It was historic, yes. It was unprecedented, yes. But it was more spectacle and little substance. At times it looked like a theatre of the absurd. That is why all Trump’s bluster and bluff could not hide the emptiness of the Joint Declaration signed in Singapore. Only weeks earlier the United States and North Korea [...]


Trump’s lavish praise music to Kim’s ears


It was historic, yes. It was unprecedented, yes. But it was more spectacle and little substance. At times it looked like a theatre of the absurd. That is why all Trump’s bluster and bluff could not hide the emptiness of the Joint Declaration signed in Singapore.

Only weeks earlier the United States and North Korea were threatening to nuke each other. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un threatened to blow parts of the US all over Antarctica. Ah said US President Donald Trump who is never short of words and short words at that, he would deposit Pyongyang in kingdom come or wherever it was furthest. After all he has a bigger button ( a nuclear one that is) than the “little rocket man” from the hermit state living in international isolation.

Kim Jong-un’s names for Trump were far less complimentary as they traded insults and Trump refused to talk to the man from Pyongyang. The deal of a one- to- one meeting that Trump was contemplating seemed decidedly off. But it did not take Trump a millennium to change his mind given his impulsive nature. “Trump the Unpredictable” acted as he often does whether deciding on policy or people. He decided to hold the summit with North Korea- the first by a sitting President of the US and the sitting leader of the North Korean state.

If, as it has been said he took his White House staff by surprise that would be an understatement. So Singapore, the city state had the honour of hosting the first such summit. It all seemed so surreal. Those who watched as I did the whole drama unfold before one on the box from start to the Trump press conference and Trump’s departure on Air Force One and Kim in a hired aircraft from China Air would surely have wondered at the neatly choreographed theatre on the one hand and the unexpected and deflated denouement on the other.

U.S. President Donald Trump sits next to North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un before their bilateral meeting at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore

From the duo’s walk in the park, as it were, and their walk to centre-stage from separate entrances against a backdrop of the national flags of the US and the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea it was all theatre, playing to prime time TV viewers in the American south or wherever else in the world people had the time and inclination to watch reality TV even from “fake news” sources.

The lavish praise that Trump heaped on Kim at the press conference and other interviews and remarks seemed like he was talking of a long time friend rather than an enemy that was only too ready to display his military muscles and missiles.

But then Trump is quite ready to denounce his allies in terms that he should be reserved for his greatest foes. When he turned round on Canadian Prime Minister Justine Trudeau shortly after the G7 summit it was typical of the man. It might be recalled that some time before he touched down in Singapore Trump had boasted that he could assess the character of an individual within seconds of meeting him.

If this is the kind of impulsive character analysis that led him to defend Kim Jong-un’s record as the leader of North Korea burying Kim’s human rights record under piles of rhetorical garbage, it is scant wonder that the young North Korean leader with hardly any diplomatic or negotiating experience has run rings round the loud-mouthed US president who parades as the ruler of the universe.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this summit and Trumps post-summit comments concerns Kim’s human rights record, a subject of concern to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankans surely remember the US sponsored anti-Sri Lanka resolutions tabled at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in October 2015. We were roasted before the UNHRC by the US and its allies for what they called violations of international human rights law, human rights abuses and the indiscriminate killing of civilians particularly in the last months of war against the LTTE.
Sri Lanka was fighting an anti-terrorist war against the LTTE that had external assistance in the way of foreign diplomatic support and financial and arms supplies from LTTE and diaspora groups abroad.

Even today the US, UK and diaspora groups have not abandoned their efforts to drag Sri Lanka and its leaders of the day before whatever international tribunal they could convince that crimes were committed.

Yet when it comes to North Korea where Kim Jong-un has incarcerated some 120,000 of his own people in gulags according to UN reports, starved several millions and had his half-brother killed in Malaysia and his uncle executed in his country shortly after coming to power, Trump sees him as a paragon of virtue.

In an interview Trump gave Fox News on his way back, he was asked about Kim’s record. Trump replied by praising Kim as a “tough guy. Hey, when you take over a country, tough country, with tough people, and you take it over from your father, I don’t care who you are, what you are, how much of an advantage you have – if you can do that at 27 years old, that’s one in 10,000 could do that.”
Trump went on: “So he’s a very smart guy, he’s a great negotiator and I think we understand each other.”

The journalist from Fox News, which is Trump’s echo chamber, sounding as though taken aback by the president’s flippant response, pressed Trump on the issue: “But he’s still done some really bad things.”

To which Trump said: “Yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things. I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.”

Sure, Trump could name a number of such nations starting with his own. After all doesn’t he have this slogan called “America first”. Trump who claims he has an incredible memory should then surely remember the numerous atrocities the US has committed, especially in other countries which it has invaded and ravaged in the name of the “free world”.

Trump’s failure to condemn one of the worst human rights records on the world stage surely shocked journalists covering the press conference. Even persistent questioning on this issue would not shake Trumps puerile defence of the man.

Had Sri Lanka a nuclear arsenal and threatened as Kim did to send his weapons in the direction of Guam, would the US be trying to throttle us at the UNHRC? Hardly so!

Two factors brought Trump to the negotiations. One was his egoism. He wanted to be recognized as the leader who neutered North Korea and brought peace to the region. The other was that Kim was as unpredictable as Trump himself and so there was an inherent danger that Kim pushed too far could react in a manner that endangered peace in the region.

So Trump came to Singapore bearing gifts, unlike the Greeks with their Trojan horse. They were genuine gifts as those who followed Trump’s press conference closely and read the Joint Declaration signed by the two leaders would conclude.

Whether Trump intended to present Kim with the generous giveaways or his bluster and arrogance got in the way of shrewd assessment, is hard to say. In one of his usual giveaway lines Trump said he and Kim trust each other. The world will be able to see how far this trust goes when the real negotiations start. There are sharp differences between the US and North Korea with regard to interpretation.

The vague language used in the joint statement has been of little help in trying to close the evident gap between them in their approach to nuclear disarmament which we will probably see before too long. What is nuclear disarmament to the US is certainly not what it means to Pyongyang which sees the issue in a much broader perspective encompassing total nuclear disarmament.

It is true that in the statement Kim agreed that his country would work towards the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” If Trump has a remarkable memory as he says he does, he would note that this is the kind of phrase that Pyongyang has used for the last 25 years or more.

Simply put “would work” does not mean “shall work”. The statement is very short on detail. The US has always wanted CVID- complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament. But there is nothing that suggests this is what North Korea means by it. On the other hand the Iran deal from which Trump pulled out has 110 pages of detailed arrangements including the deployment of official inspectors for verification.

Before leaving Washington Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said several times that US will demand rigorous terms on disarmament especially CVID. When journalists asked him in South Korea why even the word “verifiable” was not in joint statement Pompeo blew a gasket haranguing the newsmen and referring to the question as silly etc.

It is not silly or irrelevant. It is simply that Kim and company took the high and mighty US for a ride. So now Pompeo will be going around to Pacific region capitals trying to convince countries such as China which was the real winner at the summit, that “complete” includes “verifiable”.

Now the theatrics of the occasion is gone and so is the pomp. So over to Pompeo.

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