More than 60 years ago, the British Labour stalwart Aneurin Bevan pushed back against the momentum for unilateral nuclear disarmament in his party by wondering whether it would be appropriate to send a foreign secretary “naked into the conference chamber”.
The merits of his stance have been debated ever since. In a very different context, though, Kim Jong-un clearly wasn’t undressed when he strolled into the conference chamber in Singapore last week. In fact, he wouldn’t even have scored an invitation had North Korea not demonstrated its ability to carry out nuclear strikes, possibly even on the US mainland.
The nuclear capability, in other words, is Kim’s Trump card, so to speak. Might he be willing to give it up in return for promises of economic assistance and the vague prospect of Trump-branded seaside condominiums?
Well, maybe. Kim was seemingly impressed by the sights he saw in Singapore — and the idea of an authoritarian, but not quite totalitarian, family-run state may have intrigued him. On the other hand, it’s worth noting how the North Koreans reacted to suggestions from US National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice-President Mike Pence that the Libyan precedent might be a salutary example in this context.
Spokespeople in Pyongyang promptly labelled Bolton as repugnant (a description with which it’s hard to disagree) and Pence as a political dummy. After all, there are two elements to the Libyan saga. Muammar Gaddafi, petrified by the US-led aggression against Iraq, mothballed his nuclear development programme, and was promptly embraced by the likes of Tony Blair. Just a few years later, Nato provided the firepower for Gaddafi’s decapitation. And, seven years on, Libya remains mired in a deadly mess.
North Korea has also kept a keen eye on Iraq, where Saddam Hussein faced an American-led invasion after abandoning his nuclear ambitions. And Iran, which agreed to unprecedentedly intrusive inspections and abided in every way with the deal it had struck with Western powers, only to find itself at the receiving end once more of misguided invective from Washington, which has pulled out of what Donald Trump has stupidly described as the worst deal in human history.
The irony, in the latter instance, is that the Iran deal offers a viable template for any meaningful deal with North Korea. For the moment, though, there isn’t a deal. The document signed in Singapore by Kim and Trump does not substantially deviate from the long-held stances of both sides. As analysts and commentators have noted, “the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” does not necessarily carry the same meaning in Pyongyang as it does in Washington.
All the same, the fact that the Singapore summit took place at all — after Trump called it off, in the wake of Pence and Bolton’s almost successful efforts to derail the process — is undeniably a positive. And the role played by the South Korean administration of Moon Jae-in has been instrumental in facilitating a dialogue. President Moon does not appear to be unduly perturbed by the cancellation of joint military exercises with the US, which Trump appropriately branded as provocative, given that the game plans regularly simulate invasions of North Korea and the elimination of its leadership. The US president also isn’t wrong, when challenged with reminders of North Korea’s human rights abuses, in pointing out that many other countries are also guilty of doing “a lot of bad things”. In fact, in recent history, the US has been at the top of the list. But those who accuse him of legitimising an atrocious dictator tend to ignore the fact that Washington has a long history of behaving in that fashion, cavorting with tyrants from Francisco Franco to Augusto Pinochet and Ziaul Haq. The difference this time around is that some good may come of it.
Not surprisingly, meanwhile, it is not just Trump — perhaps enthused by, more than anything else, the prospect of a Nobel Peace Prize — who has been fending off those within his appalling administration who would prefer a military showdown to any sort of agreement with ‘the enemy’. A week before heading to Singapore in a borrowed Chinese aircraft, Kim is reported to have replaced his three top military officials — who presumably were uncomfortable with the idea of an accommodation with the nation that devastated the peninsula during the Korean war.
That conflict is yet to be decisively resolved, and it is perfectly possible the negotiations — including a range of back-channel contacts — will add up to nothing, leaving the peninsula in nuclear limbo. An alternative has been delineated, though. And, if it should come to pass, it will deserve to be appreciated, without necessarily projecting either Trump or Kim as a visionary leader. Winston Churchill, after all, was deplorable in many respects, but his notion of jaw-jaw being better than war-war holds true in most circumstances.