Trump, Kim, the turkey and us

The devil will be in the details.

U.S. PRESIDENT Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un walk together in Sentosa, Singapore in June, 2018 (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
U.S. PRESIDENT Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un walk together in Sentosa, Singapore in June, 2018
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
A tale of Rabbi Nachman speaks of how a wise man cured a mentally ill prince who thought he was a turkey by adopting the manners and language of a turkey, descending to the sick prince’s level and gradually bringing him back to his senses.
This out-of the box approach in many ways illustrates the method that President Trump adopted in dealing with Kim Jong Un and which so far has achieved most promising results, and not only for Southeast Asia – the accord may have ramifications for the Middle East as well.
In a dramatic breakthrough to the North Korean crisis, Trump met dictator Kim (who has already taken initial steps toward denuclearization) in a first-ever summit. This apparent success came about through a shrewd carrot-and-stick strategy that combined credible threats of rhetorical, military and international diplomatic pressure with economic pressure.
Trump’s rhetoric – which would not embarrass the invective of Kim (“Little rocket man”), and outright threats (“Our nuclear bomb is bigger,” “I pray to God that we will never have to use our nuclear force”) – were combined with the imposition of upgraded sanctions on shipping; a diplomatic initiative (in which Good-cop Pompeo worked in tandem with the Bad-cop Bolton who remained in stand-by, ever ready); the involvement of China and South Korea in the process; and above all credible military pressure (as witnessed by the recent US-South Korean joint military maneuvers).
This spoke to Kim’s heart and mind and eventually forced his hand. Kim is a pragmatist whose secondary education was in the West. He well understood Trump’s “language” and agreed to hold the summit after making some initial confidence-building measures (participating in the South Korean Olympics, releasing Americans imprisoned in North Korea and publicizing the destruction of a nuclear facility). The previously unimaginable summit finally took place, despite last-minute waves that rocked the boat, and led to the most optimistic statements and the signing of an agreement which may pave the way to complete denuclearization.
THE FINAL outcome still remains unclear since the devil will be in the details. Will North Korea indeed nix its entire nuclear weapons program and arsenal in exchange for massive foreign investment? What will be the verification procedures? Despite the optimistic statements and a press conference in which Trump revealed that the two leaders had reached an agreement for North Korea to completely denuclearize, the road ahead is still long. In Trump’s words, nothing is accomplished “until you get the ball across the goal line.”
However long the process may take, it is obvious there will be ramifications for the Middle East and for Iran’s future behavior. Motoko Rich wrote in The New York Times on May 9 that the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal was intended to send a message to North Korea. There has been a close relationship between North Korea and Iran. Iran gave North Korea (which had already tested long-range ballistic missiles), cash in exchange for missile technology. There are, likewise, scientific and engineering cooperative agreements between the two countries.
Will the agreement reached in this week’s summit also affect these bilateral relations? Will Iran, now under the Damocles sword of imminent US economic sanctions against its trading partners – which might eradicate the economic gains from the nuclear deal – come to similar conclusions as those reached by Kim? Prior to the nuclear agreement, Iran’s economic situation had been at an all-time low. Since the signature of that accord, foreign investment has flown into Iran’s coffers. Yet that influx of cash has not yet reached the pockets of Iranians.
Now, with major European manufacturers putting many of these deals on hold, much of this badly needed money might never arrive. After the US withdrawal from the accord, it is not certain that European and Iranian efforts can compensate for the losses which companies will endure as a result of US sanctions.
The very convening of the summit demonstrated, once again, that Donald Trump is a man of his word.
Perhaps Iran might be more receptive to his warning, “If they restart their nuclear program, they are going to have bigger problems than ever before.”
The writer is a former career army officer and a lecturer at the New School College of Management’s School of Media Studies.