Trump’s North Korean steps could be felt in Mideast - analysis

What happens on the Korean Peninsula could have implications for Trump's attempt to break the logjam in the Middle East.

July 1, 2019 13:25
3 minute read.
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone sep

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

On Sunday, in front of whirling cameras, US President Donald Trump defied expectations and did what no other sitting US president had ever done – he walked 20 steps into North Korean territory accompanied by that country’s dictator, Kim Jong Un.

The two leaders then met for an hour in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, and agreed to set up teams to restart talks to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

What happens on the Korean Peninsula – and whether Sunday’s historic photo-op turns out to be a significant diplomatic moment or just political theater – could have implications for Trump’s attempt to break the logjam in the Middle East.

The unorthodox meeting came about after another unconventional gesture 24 hours earlier, with Trump posting a tweet informing Kim he was in the neighborhood for the G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan.

“After some very important meetings, including my meeting with President Xi of China, I will be leaving Japan for South Korea (with President Moon),” Trump tweeted.

“While there, if Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!”

Kim picked up the gauntlet, and the “hello,” followed by the meeting, took place.

If this leads to significant progress, it will be taught for years as proof of the virtue of novel approaches to diplomacy. This meeting was not carefully planned, its itinerary not painstakingly choreographed, and no joint final statements were meticulously crafted.

But if it fails, diplomats will say that there are certain norms and formalities in diplomacy that simply cannot be bypassed.

And why does this all impact on the Middle East? Because the Trump administration is also taking a decidedly unconventional approach to diplomacy here as well.

The US-sponsored “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Bahrain last week was a good example: hold a conference on the economic benefits of a future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement without spelling out the parameters of the political agreement, or inviting officials of either side. Definitely a new way of doing things.

And as a result, it was the target of withering criticism by diplomats and officials – Palestinian, American and Israeli – who have worked (unsuccessfully) on this process for years, and who tend to believe that nothing else than the way they have approached the issue will succeed.

If, however, the handshake inside North Korea does in fact lead to some progress in ending the conflict on the Korean Peninsula, then Trump’s unorthodox approach to the Mideast will likely be taken more seriously and will be met with less knee-jerk derision. Any movement on North Korea could help ignite a degree of momentum here as well by creating the perception that there might be something after all to Trump’s unconventional approach at trying to untangle some of the world’s toughest diplomatic knots.

There are also practical implications for Israel if there is progress in the talks between US and North Korea. Both Syria and Iran have benefited mightily from North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile knowhow. If, as a result of understandings between North Korea and the US, Pyongyang is compelled not to share its technology or nuclear and ballistic missile knowledge elsewhere, that would be a significant plus for Israel.

Any steps forward to some kind of an agreement with North Korea could also further isolate Iran by potentially driving a wedge in the North Korean-Iranian nexus. If North Korea – as a result of agreements with the US – begins to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure and scales back the scope of its ballistic missile program, it would also increase pressure on Iran to do the same.

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