Trump-Kim summit has few implications for Middle East

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is, well, a bit more complex.
Sunday 17/06/2018
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) and US President Donald Trump shake hands at the conclusion of their meetings at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island in Singapore, on June 12. (AP)
Meeting of the century. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) and US President Donald Trump shake hands at the conclusion of their meetings at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island in Singapore, on June 12. (AP)

On June 12, the world officially stood upside down: Barely 48 hours after calling Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “dishonest and weak” and after one of his top advisers said there was a “special place in hell” for the Canadian leader, US President Donald Trump shook hands with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, the brutal dictator of perhaps the world’s most totalitarian regime.

“He’s got a great personality. He’s a funny guy. He’s very smart. He’s a great negotiator,” Trump gushed about the man whose regime arrested an American college student in 2016 and allowed him to return home only after he fell into a coma of suspicious origin; he died a few days after his homecoming.

The two leaders made some promises — Pyongyang to denuclearise, Washington to halt military training exercises with Seoul (a pledge that came as a surprise to both the United States and South Korean militaries). However, the proverbial devil lies in the proverbial details, none of which have been worked out and all of which will be difficult to finalise.

Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, predicted “Pyongyang will aim for a phased approach to extend negotiations for as long as possible to test the president. Kim will likely try to game the system to receive some concessions along the way, build in exit ramps if he finds himself in a disadvantageous position and keep his nuclear weapons for as long as possible.”

As world shaking as the Trump-Kim summit may be — Trump called it “a very great moment in the history of the world” — it will have minimal effect on US policy towards the Middle East, despite rather tenuous analogies that have been put forward. Consider the following questions:

If Trump was willing to meet and negotiate with Kim, who has threatened to bomb California, why is he so opposed to a dialogue over nuclear weapons with Tehran?

It is true that Kim presents a hypothetical nuclear threat to the US mainland and a real threat to US allies, which Tehran does not and could not for years to come, but North Korea is not actively undermining the stability of US allies in Asia. Nuclear weapons are the only security issue the United States has with Pyongyang — human rights are not a security issue — but there are a host of security issues complicating the US-Iran relationship.

North Korea is a regional basket case with nuclear weapons; Iran is an energy-rich regional power with the infrastructure to develop nuclear weapons. Of course, a dialogue with Tehran could be fruitful under the right circumstances but the two cases are not comparable.

Should Kim be wary of the “Libya model”?

Former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi ditched his weapons of mass destruction in exchange for an end to sanctions and acceptance by the West, only to find NATO and US warplanes supporting the uprising against him in 2011. While there is no guarantee that the Kim dynasty will not face a popular rebellion at some point, the likelihood of US military intervention is remote for one simple reason: China. A militarily resurgent Beijing would never accept the United States taking part in the overthrow of Kim.

South Korea also would be loth to see a sudden and violent overthrow of the Pyongyang regime. Such an eventuality would create a refugee crisis the likes of which the world has never seen and South Koreans would face the brunt of it. Seoul wants slow and orderly change in its northern neighbour.

If Trump pulls off such a dramatic breakthrough, maybe he can deliver on Israeli-Palestinian peace?

Anyone who believes this must live in the US state of Colorado, where marijuana is legal and widely available. The conflict between the United States and North Korea is relatively simple: Pyongyang has nuclear weapons, Washington wants it to abandon them; the US refuses to acknowledge the North Korean regime; the regime wants to be accepted and protected from overthrow. The trade-off is obvious and predates Trump’s foray into US-North Korean diplomacy.

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is, well, a bit more complex.

There is one valid analogy between the Trump-Kim handshake and the long sordid history of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. In 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. Twenty-five years and thousands of fatalities later, there is no peace and no negotiations.

The Trump-Kim summit was a classic case of putting theatrics before the hard work. The world should hope that it leads to a historic peace on the Korean Peninsula but, even if it does, its relevance to the Middle East is hard to see.