We can only imagine what will happen when the world’s biggest egos – Trump and Kim Jong-un – finally meet

The world has to hope that this odd couple are in a good mood, and that Melania and her counterpart Ri Sol-jul (if attending) get along just fine too

Thursday 10 May 2018 17:17
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The three Americans formerly held hostage in North Korea next to President Donald Trump upon their arrival at Joint Base Andrews
The three Americans formerly held hostage in North Korea next to President Donald Trump upon their arrival at Joint Base Andrews

Could a lasting peace on the Korean peninsula be a matter of weeks away? The weight of history is surely against some final, definitive peace treaty emerging from the Kim-Trump summit, now scheduled for 12 June in Singapore.

In reality time is too short for such a document to emerge in any case, but the broader, brighter picture is that events are moving at such a pace that it is more likely than not that significant further steps will be taken, and that North Korea may indeed begin the process of re-entry to the international family of nations.

Whether Mr Kim will also be stimulated and inspired by his surroundings in Singapore – a freewheeling, prosperous capitalist paradise, which nonetheless retains some authoritarian political traits – can only be matter of conjecture. Maybe someone wanted to drop a hint.

The visit of the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to Pyongyang, his personal welcome from Mr Kim, the release of three American hostages and the recent North-South meeting in the demilitarised zone – all inconceivable just a few months ago, when the ironically named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seemed set on lobbing a nuclear bomb at the White House.

Yesterday we learned that President Moon Jae-in of South Korea gifted Mr Kim a USB flash drive with an economic plan to deliver the same kind of growth and wealth to the North as the South has enjoyed for some years. No longer, it is to be hoped, will the North dismiss the people of the South as puppets of the American imperialists, but fellow Koreans who have, simply as a matter of fact, done a rather better job of running their economy and avoiding mass starvation and cannibalism. That said, humility has rarely been the hallmark of the Kim dynasty.

Soon the world will be transfixed by the meeting, and hopefully not collision, of two of the world’s more oversized egos in the tiny island state of Singapore, their hairstyles, first ladies, dress sense and body language analysed endlessly. Will Mr Trump crush Mr Kim in one of his famously manly handshakes? Will they hold hands, as the US president did with Theresa May, and Mr Kim did with Mr Moon? Will their wives find much in common? What will they have for dinner? (Mr Kim enjoys the finer things in life, such as exquisite French cheeses and cognac; Mr Trump is a teetotal burger fan).

“Little rocket man” meets “the dotard” – live. It will be quite the circus.

As to substance, the greatest conundrum will be how Mr Kim will be able to secure the stability of his regime, and his family’s hold on it, as he relinquishes his nuclear arsenal. Another will be how he can deliver the kind of economic liberalisation his country so desperately needs to escape the dead grip of Stalinism while retaining the absolute rule of the Korean Workers Party (ie Mr Kim). And how will North Koreans react to a sudden exposure to Western media, the internet and visitors?

There are potential answers to all of those questions. China, North Korea’s only friend in the world, and not a totally devoted one at that, has shown how one-party rule is consistent with rapid economic change and expansion since the Deng reforms began in 1989. Regional powers such as China, South Korea, America, Australia and, if diplomatically tactful, Japan and Russia, could guarantee North Korea’s territorial integrity and, more or less explicitly, Mr Kim’s right to rule in return for disarmament, with a programme of inward investment that would help stabilise the North’s economy. Perhaps Mr Kim will overlook President Trump’s habit of tearing up solemn international accords.

Mike Pompeo meets Kim Jong-un in North Korea

No one, importantly, is talking about regime change in Pyongyang, not even the most hawkish of the White House advisers. Even so, North Korea’s new friends should make it clear that the very worst excesses of the state – the gulags, the torture and the kidnappings – are not compatible with a new order and a new atmosphere in East Asia.

We have, though, been somewhere near here before. Under President Clinton there was a similar break in the clouds; his secretary of state Madeleine Albright made a highly successful visit in 2000; intermittently, South Korea has pursued the “sunshine strategy” of attempting to befriend its awkward neighbour; inward investment created a mini-South Korea in one city in the North, where something resembling a modern industrial economy was allowed to operate, at least while the electricity was on. More often, the North would react angrily to some real or perceived threat – sinking South Korean warships, causing nuclear panic in Japan and Hawaii, launching ever longer-ranging intercontinental ballistic missiles and detonating ever more convincing nuclear warheads, to the extent that they have demolished a whole mountain range.

Rage, anger and the thirst for revenge are never far away from the overly proud and sensitive personalities of Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. The world has to hope that this odd couple are in a good mood, and that Melania and her counterpart Ri Sol-jul (if attending) get along just fine too. President Trump could teach them how to tweet – then again, perhaps that’s not such a good way to secure world peace.

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