'Real Credit for Trump-Kim Meeting Goes to South Korean President Moon'

In conversation with Pervez A. Hoodbhoy, nuclear physicist and distinguished professor of physics and mathematics, about the historic Singapore summit.

New Delhi: While hype around the first summit between the US and North Korean leaders starts to mellow down, experts and former diplomats largely agreed that ‘complete denuclearisation’ was unlikely to mean Pyongyang giving up their nuclear weapons arsenal entirely, and said that forthcoming negotiations will be a long-drawn affair.

Just a few months ago, they were calling each other ‘deranged dotard’ and ‘little rocket man’, and threatening to bring down “fire and fury”. But over a series of meeting in Singapore’s Capella hotel, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un got along rather well. The joint statement commits North Korea to move towards “complete denuclearisation”, with more rounds of negotiations in the future led on the US side by secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

But there were few details beyond that. It was left to the two sides to fill in some of the blanks.

Trump announced that US will freeze “provocative” war games with South Korea, which he added would save a lot of money. The DPRK leader, Trump said, had promised to destroy a missile engine testing site.

The North Korean official news agency KCNA announced that Trump offered to lift sanctions and extend security guarantees. The North Korean media report did mention the offer to halt military exercises, but there was no mention of destroying a missile facility as announced by Trump.

“Kim Jong Un clarified the stand that if the U.S. side takes genuine measures for building trust in order to improve the DPRK-U.S. relationship, the DPRK, too, can continue to take additional good-will measures of next stage commensurate with them,” said the KCNA report. It further said that both US and North Korean leaders “had the shared recognition to the effect that it is important to abide by the principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action in achieving peace, stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”.

The historical nature of the summit is not contested by observers, but there is concern that posing before the world press and signing a joint statement was the easy bit.

The Wire spoke to five experts who have worked on nuclear disarmament and observed the geopolitics of the Korean politics to get their view on the outcome of the Singapore summit. Here is what Pervez A. Hoodbhoy, nuclear physicist and distinguished professor of physics and mathematics at Forman Christian College, Lahore, had to say.

You can read the rest of the interviews here.

How do you perceive the significance of the summit?

It was a huge photo-op. The world’s media was transfixed by Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un shaking hands, smiling, sitting across from each other at a table with staff, eating lunch and walking around the hotel together. And the outcome? Pretty bland, I’d say, although I am not unhappy. But what amazes me is how everybody is being forced to say how splendid the deal is. Even the Democrats, who didn’t know beans of what had been agreed upon. More importantly, South Korea seems to have been kept in the dark. There are no concrete steps other than to continue talking about denuclearisation. I do hope something comes of this meeting, but I have no basis for this hope. The world will conclude that nuclear weapons are the currency of power. How awful.

Who won, who lost?

Beyond a shadow of a doubt it was Kim Jong-un. Let’s remember that it was only a few months ago when he was reviled as an unstable, crazed, dangerous despot who keeps his people in a dark dungeon and threatens war from time to time. He’s still very much that but now he’s a classy world leader! I’d say that Kim is going to have a lot more leverage all around – particularly with China – after this. Trump spoke repeatedly of the “great honour” to meet with someone he had called the “little rocket man” just a while ago. Kim lost nothing, America did in terms of global prestige and perceived power. Its president is now seeking approval – and is openly greedy for a Nobel Prize – for having engaged a murderous dictator of a third class power. I think the real credit for this meeting – for whatever it is worth – goes to President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. He ran on a peace platform and has been the main driver of the new process of engagement with Kim Jong-un. If peace somehow comes to the Korean peninsula, he should be at the top of the list.

In your opinion, does the joint statement take forward the case of denuclearisation?

You have to understand that Trump is not against allies having nuclear weapons. So he is not your Global Zero type. His goal is to get the US out of providing security for South Korea and Japan because it costs the US taxpayer. Time and time again he’s called on both countries to pay cash to the US for providing them with a nuclear umbrella. He wouldn’t mind Saudi Arabia getting nukes either – he’s not only said so, but there’s a huge US-Saudi deal in the works for reactors. I’ll be happy if the joint statement moves North Korea’s denuclearisation forward, even if by an inch. And, yes, in spite of my reservations I am still happy the two met. It’s better than throwing epithets at each other and keeping the region constantly on the boil.

Pervez A. Hoodbhoy. Credit: YouTube

Do you think that the reference in the joint statement to complete denuclearisation, as opposed to Complete Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantlement (CVID), is significant?

This so-called “historic” document is old hat. Who really cares about recovering MIA/POW remains from 70 years ago? Yes, the North Koreans reaffirmed an agreement with South Korea from April that “commits” to “work toward” denuclearisation in the Korean Peninsula. That’s not earth-shaking. Plus, we should not forget that the Six-Party talks of 2005 under Clinton wherein North Korea agreed to give up “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs”. Of course, that didn’t happen.

What are the key differences in defining denuclearisation between the US and North Korea? Do you see DPRK giving up its nuclear weapons?

Nukes are all that North Korea has. It does not have an industrial base, its infrastructure is extremely poor, it has a huge prison population and it has experienced horrible famines. The thought of what happened to Libya’s Gaddafi would have been on Kim’s mind even without Bolton’s stupid blurt. Kim has also seen what happened after the fall of the Berlin Wall – former East Germany is now merely an appendage of West Germany. There can be no future to Kim Jong-un as a political leader, and his generals would lose their power too. I wish it happens, but it’s so hard to see why denuclearisation would be acceptable to the North Korean leadership.

Trump announced freezing of ‘war games’ (exercises), while North Korea has apparently said that they will destroy their missile engine testing facility. Is that a good deal? Has the US conceded more at Singapore than DPRK?

All little steps that move countries away from war are to be welcomed. So this is a good step – if implemented. Destruction of nuclear and missile facilities is costly, not irreversible. But let’s note that Trump is not the United States so let’s not equate the two. He may be president for whatever reason internal to the US but Americans – both of good sense and bad sense – contest his negotiating skills and wisdom (or lack thereof). A war-mongering conservative, John Kelly, who accompanied Trump for this visit, had a massive fight with his boss months earlier when he felt the boss was insistent on abandoning South Korea. The US has diminished its global role but Trump is triumphant. He sees North Korea as a future Mar-a-Lago, unspoiled so far by capitalism.

Doesn’t a relatively vague joint statement still contribute to bringing down tensions in the Korean peninsula?

One clings on to every bit of hope. So, yes, I’m happy in spite of my scepticism.

India’s statement welcoming the Singapore summit again calls for keeping in mind proliferation linkages extending to South Asia. Do you think that AQ Khan Network issue will find any resonance in Washington while talks go on with DPRK, or has it been now permanently shelved?

AQK has gone senile and nobody takes him seriously any more except a few diehards here in Pakistan. He writes incredible nonsense in Urdu newspapers here (eg on post-menopause problems, stuff he picks up from the Readers’ Digest) but there’s no AQ Khan Network – at least none that I am aware of. AQK and his famed network have become irrelevant. Most countries can make missiles and nukes unless they are specifically targeted, like Iran. Technology has reduced nuclear and missile production to putting Meccano/Lego kits together. The parts are available internationally. Second-rate countries can create great weapons. India and Pakistan also crowed after their nukes, but these weren’t real technical achievements judged by the standards of their times.

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