An improbable friendship

An improbable friendship

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Mr. Trump, the 72-year-old leader of one
 of the world’s oldest democracies, an $18 trillion economy with a 1.3 
million strong military, of whom 28,500 troops are deployed in South Korea,
 and Chairman Kim, at 34 the third-generation leader of a totalitarian 
state with an impoverished economy estimated at less than $40 billion 
and a military force of 1.2 million with a newly acquired nuclear 
capability, make for an unusual couple. And yet, as Mr. Trump said, 
“From the beginning we got along.” Describing Mr. Kim as “very 
talented”, he recalled with a degree of empathy that the North Korean 
had faced a challenge when he took over his country at just 26 years.

Art of making friends

Less than a year ago, the heightened 
rhetoric on both sides had led to growing concerns about the possibility
 of a nuclear exchange as North Korea ramped up its nuclear and missile 
testing programs. In September 2017, it conducted its sixth nuclear 
test, declaring it a thermonuclear device, a claim that has been 
disputed. However, with a yield of 100-300 kt (kiloton), it marked a 
significant improvement from earlier tests. Four of the six tests have 
been undertaken by Mr. Kim with a view to miniaturizing the device to 
fit a missile warhead.

Simultaneously, he accelerated the 
missile program conducting over 80 flight tests during the last seven 
years, compared to 16 undertaken by his father from 1994 to 2011. At 
least three new missiles have been successfully tested and inducted. 
These include the Musudan (around 3,500 km), Hwasong 12 (4,500 km) and 
Hwasong 14 (around 10,000 km). Last November, Hwasong 15 was tested with
 a range estimated at 13,000 km, making it clear that North Korea was 
close to developing the capability to target the U.S. mainland.

Mr. Trump warned North Korea with “fire 
and fury like the world has never seen”. North Korea responded by 
threatening to hit Guam “enveloping it in fire”. Mr. Trump announced 
that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded”. The
 UN Security Council met repeatedly, tightening economic sanctions on 
North Korea. Mr. Trump described Mr. Kim as a “rocket man on a suicide 
mission for himself and his regime” while North Korea vowed to “tame the
 mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire”. Russia and China
 appealed for restraint, proposing a “freeze for freeze”, calling on the
 U.S. to stop military exercises with South Korea in return for North 
Korea halting its nuclear and missile testing.

Beginnings of a thaw

The situation began to change with Mr. 
Kim’s New Year’s address indicating that North Korea had achieved its 
nuclear deterrent capability and offering a new opening in relations 
with South Korea as it prepared to host the Winter Olympics in February.
 Things moved rapidly thereafter. The two Korean teams marched together 
at the opening ceremony and the presence of Mr. Kim’s sister, Kim 
Yo-jong, added a dash of bonhomie to the soft diplomacy.

Two senior South Korean officials 
visited Pyongyang in early March. Over a long dinner conversation, Mr. 
Kim indicated continued restraint on testing and willingness to discuss 
denuclearization of the Korean peninsula if military threats to North 
Korea decreased and regime safety was guaranteed. The testing restraint 
was formally declared on April 21, a week before the summit between the 
two Korean leaders on April 27 in Panmunjom, which was acclaimed a 

The U.S. was kept fully briefed by South
 Korean officials and in early March Mr. Trump indicated readiness to 
meet Mr. Kim, leading to heightened speculation about mismatched 
expectations all around. Even after two visits by Mike Pompeo (first as CIA
 chief and then as Secretary of State) and the release of three 
Americans sentenced for spying, there were hiccups when National 
Security Adviser John Bolton held up the “Libyan model” for North 
Korea’s disarmament and the U.S. launched air combat exercises together 
with South Korea. North Korea responded angrily. The summit was put off,
 followed by an exchange of conciliatory letters between the two leaders
 amid mounting suspense, and on June 1 the summit was reinstated.

There have been previous attempts by the
 U.S. to address concerns regarding North Korea’s nuclear program. The 
first was the 1994 Agreed Framework after North Korea threatened to 
withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This was 
annulled by the Bush administration in 2002 with the ‘axis of evil’ 
speech. Consequently, North Korea withdrew from the NPT. The Six Party 
talks (second round) were initiated in 2004, resulting in a joint 
statement the following year reiterating commitment to denuclearization,
 with a peace treaty and security guarantees to be concluded. The 
process collapsed when the U.S. imposed new sanctions, and in 2006 North
 Korea conducted its first nuclear test.

Changed situation

Since then, the situation has changed. 
The old process is dead; North Korean capabilities have grown 
dramatically, increasing anxiety especially in South Korea and Japan
 and Chinese worries about U.S. deployment of missile defense in South 
Korea. There are challenges too. The U.S. would ideally like complete, 
verifiable and irreversible disarmament as would Japan. North Korea 
seeks regime legitimacy and regime security together with sanctions 
relief while reducing its dependency on China. China would like to 
prolong the process to ensure its centrality. And South Korea would like
 to lower tensions while retaining the American presence. Reconciling 
these needs time and sustained dialogue.

The Joint Statement in Singapore is shy 
on detail but carries political promise. Instead of obsessing on the 
nuclear issue, it reflects clear recognition that a new beginning in 
U.S.-North Korea relations is possible only by replacing the 1953 
Armistice Agreement with a permanent peace treaty and that regime 
security guarantee for North Korea is a prerequisite for 
denuclearization. Mr. Trump has accepted that the denuclearization 
process will take time, but he wants to take it to a point that makes it
 irreversible. The affirmation of the Panmunjom Declaration (signed 
between the two Korean leaders in April) means that bilateral 
normalization between the two Koreas will move apace and a meeting 
involving the U.S. and possibly China to conclude a peace treaty can 
happen by end-2018.

Mr. Trump’s unilateral announcements at 
the press conference are equally promising. He announced suspension of 
joint military exercises with South Korea and indicated that North Korea
 would dismantle a major missile engine testing site. There is no 
sanctions relief yet but given the changing psychological backdrop, it 
is likely that there may be a loosening by China and Russia.

Summit diplomacy has a mixed record. In 
1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon travelled to China for the first 
summit with Chairman Mao Zedong leading to a realignment of political 
forces whose impact is still reverberating. In 1986, U.S. President 
Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik, 
coming close to agreement on abolition of all nuclear weapons till 
realpolitik eventually prevailed.


With Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, it is 
difficult to predict how the process will unfold but it is a new 
opening. One can almost visualize Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim telling each 
other as they said their goodbyes in Singapore: “I think this is the 
beginning of a beautiful friendship.”


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