Starry-eyed expectations about the outcome of the impending summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have soared in the immediate aftermath of the release of three American prisoners by North Korea.
As a gesture on the part of a frequently condemned country with nuclear potential, the North Korean President’s humanitarian initiative will of course be generally welcomed.
Having said that, it would be presumptuous to imagine that Thursday’s march to freedom means peace. It doesn’t for there are red herrings across the trail.
More basically, the differences can scarcely be glossed over in the prevailing euphoria; an enduring settlement hinges hugely on the upshot of the Singapore summit. Mr Trump has betrayed a degree of mood-swing, saying “it could happen” when asked at Andrews Air Force Base if he hoped to go to North Korea himself.
Diplomatic realpolitik transcends both the romantic euphoria and the grandstanding. Both sides will be expected to display a fair degree of subtlety, patience, and understanding of the other’s perspective. On closer reflection, these are not the qualities for which President Trump can be proud of.
Furthermore, he has a coterie of advisers generally known as “arch non-compromisers”, notably the hawkish National Security Adviser, John Bolton.
The risk of the White House over-reacting to anything less than surrender could be dangerously real. The war of words over the past weeks doesn’t quite inspire optimism.
Prior to the presidential grandstanding that greeted the return of the prisoners, Trump had advanced a dire warning of what failure means ~ “If I can’t do it, it will be a very tough time for a lot of countries, and a lot of people.”
On closer reflection, the US President personifies the antithesis of cautious and responsible diplomacy. Given the background of almost pathological distrust, the soaring expectations might be a mite unrealistic, even dangerous, a month before the two leaders head for the high table.
As a diplomatic gesture, the release of prisoners is not exactly a novel initiative and it would be premature to conclude that it is a “rare foreign policy moment”.
At best, the frost in the ties between Washington and Pyongyang may have started melting. Indeed, anything could happen not the least because President Trump is known to be irrational and impulsive; he expects total capitulation, and anything less than the “comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation” ~ being demanded of North Korea ~ might lead to a mood-swing in the reverse direction.
The release of prisoners is therefore a small gesture in the overall construct and the final objective is still a long way away. Donald Trump being Donald Trump, he is unlikely to be satisfied with anything less than victory ~ total and unqualified.