Monday 27 May 2019

Singapore summit sees a triumph of charisma over state diplomacy

President Trump departs. Photo: AP
President Trump departs. Photo: AP

Tim Stanley

Donald Trump told journalists he hadn't slept for 25 hours but was happy to keep talking so long as they had questions.

So he bantered back-and-forth as reporters focused on the two subjects missing from the communiqué between North Korea and the US: human rights and verification of Kim Jong-un's pledge to get rid of his nuclear weapons.

North Korea has made and broken promises before, so why wouldn't it lie again? Because, said Mr Trump, "You have a different administration. A different president. A different secretary of state. We get it done."

In Trump's worldview, leadership is about character, and the bigger the character the greater the possibilities.

Is he right? Well, consider what the communiqué says. The key section is a tantalising quid pro quo: the US will "provide security guarantees" in exchange for "complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula".

You could argue this isn't much different from earlier agreements that were violated by North Korea. But a change in the leadership of both countries does appear to have changed the context. America is now led by a businessman who was elected to "disrupt" the status quo and pull the US out of costly entanglements.

It was telling how much emphasis Mr Trump has placed on the money the US could save by reducing tensions in the Korean peninsula, ending those faux bombing missions carried out in war games, burning up millions in fuel. "I know a lot about planes," he said.

North Korea, meanwhile, is led by a much younger man who has clearly calculated the regime needs to adapt to survive. That was obvious in his performance in Singapore.

Whereas his father was reclusive to the point of invisible, Mr Kim wombled out of his hotel the night before the conference to meet Singaporeans, and he was all smiles when he shook Trump's hand for 13 seconds.

He needs this to go well because he wants sanctions lifted and investment. Mr Trump needs the talks to succeed in order to score a foreign policy win in advance of the midterm elections.

When a local academic was asked on Singaporean TV why it was Mr Trump tore up the Paris and Iran deals yet has committed himself so enthusiastically to this one, the professor wryly replied it was because this communiqué was Mr Trump's idea.

Trump and Kim both operate by the politics of brinkmanship: you pick a fight, you escalate, you then pull a deal out of the hat that surprises the world. Many have said it's odd Trump should show such contempt for his allies at the G7 and yet describe Mr Kim as a "talented young man" who clearly "loves his country".

Mr Trump seems to have a respect for strong men motivated by nationalism: he gets where they're coming from, he knows how to talk to them.

The challenge is translating what appears to be a genuine meeting of minds and methods into something substantial. The problem is that the communiqué is more vague than Mr Trump told the press.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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