Millennium Post

Calculated risks

The news of the prospective meeting between the North Korean and American leaders may be seen as an amazing diplomatic breakthrough and, perhaps, it may turn out to be just that. But, any seasoned diplomat, familiar with the Korean peninsula, would refrain from being ecstatic. There are many firsts involved that have lead to terms like "unprecedented" being used liberally. But even in judging the situation, caution must be exercised. North Korea has always wanted a one-on-one summit meeting with the President of the United States. Kim Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-il, had wanted such a meeting with President Clinton. But seasoned diplomat, Madeleine Albright, was sent to North Korea to begin talks and see if enough progress was made to make way for a presidential summit. There was not. The Bush administration had labelled North Korea as a part of the Axis of Evil and ruled out high-level talks. President Obama got breakthroughs with both the Cuban and Iranian regimes through high-level contacts. But, there was no diplomacy with the North Korean regime because it would not denuclearise. Trump himself previously ridiculed the idea of talks in his tweets. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had been humiliated for his diplomatic efforts by being told that he was "wasting his time." What, then, has changed? The South Korean government received assurances that the North was serious about talks to eliminate its arsenal. But Pyongyang has announced no concessions, no reversal of its arsenal and no denuclearisation. Trump was told that in the talks between the North and the South, Kim Jong-un expressed his wish to meet with him and the US President suddenly jumped at the idea. Henry Kissinger had often said that presidential summits should be the climax of a long negotiating process, not the beginning. Trump may well have taken a gambit. Victor Cha, once slated to be Trump's ambassador to South Korea, had warned that a presidential summit was dangerous because if it failed, it would leave little room for further diplomacy. The outcome, he had warned, could eventually even be war. There is, however, no reason to lose hope. What does strike as odd is that Trump talks tough toward countries like China and Saudi Arabia? They then flatter him, put on parades and banquets, and he reverses the course. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has sought to move events on the Korean Peninsula away from war talk and towards negotiations, essentially the opposite of Trump's declared path. But, he took pains to always praise Trump while he charted his contrary course. He did it again last week, giving Trump ample credit for the opening. All these countries seem to understand how to play President Donald Trump. What needs to be watched is whether he knows how to play them.

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