By J.V. Lakshmana Rao
Third summit-level talks between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un, which seemed imminent a few weeks ago, now look untenable, at least for now.
The unscheduled meeting between Trump and Kim recently in the Demilitarization Zone (DMZ) of the border of both the Koreas has been an indication that a third summit between them is possible soon. But recent developments in North Korea and South Korea lead to some doubts about the summit. Now Trump has gotten deeply busy with his poll campaigning planning, problems within his own party, and growing tension with Iran, and trade and tariff issues with Russia and China, and to a lesser extent with India.
Trump and Kim are playing a “see-saw” or “hide and seek” game. They publicly announce great cordiality but inherently they do not trust each other. Kim goes his own way and Trump goes his own way.
Trump is keen on withdrawing forces from Afghanistan and perhaps expects he would get support from Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. It may be Trump’s expectation, but, in his talks recently with Imran Khan, Trump has revealed to Imran Khan that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought his mediation on the Kashmir issue. Trump is free to talk anything, but his free talk has surprised India as it has been all along for years firm and has remained so by asserting that Kashmir is an integral part of India and any talk on the Kashmir issue has to be held bilaterally between India and Pakistan, and there is no role for any third party.
It has been the habit of Trump to leave feelers or abruptly make announcements over national and international issues even before there are any plans for them. The first summit meet with Kim was the result of such an abrupt announcement by Trump. Trump abruptly let out a feeler about it in Washington in March 2018, when he interrupted a visiting trio of top South Korean officials in the Oval Office as they were analyzing an offer from Kim for possible diplomatic options for Korean Peninsula peace. Then Trump’s offer of willingness to meet Kim for summit-level talks was spontaneous, though such acceptance normally follows only several protocols and diplomatic meetings between concerned leaders and their representatives. The first Trump-Kim summit took place with a lot of fanfare in Singapore. A few months later the second summit took place in Hanoi, Vietnam, but it abruptly ended with Trump walking out in a huff.
Again, last month Trump, without any prior plan, met Kim and shook hands with him on the border of the Demilitarization Zone that divides the Korean Peninsula. The June 30 Trump-Kim sudden meeting gave a hope that a third summit between them is going to be a reality. This unscheduled Trump’s visit to the Korean border has made him the first sitting US President ever to set foot on North Korean soil.
After attending a G-20 summit in Osaka, Trump arrived in Seoul late on June 30 for talks with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in. Even this Trump’s visit to Moon was a surprise, which was a spur-of-the-moment event.
A few days before the G-20 summit, the South Korean President confirmed that behind-the-scene informal conversations have been going on between Trump and Kim, although no such indications were seen anywhere.
The unscheduled Trump-Kim meeting on the North Korean soil, which was originally intended for a casual exchange of pleasantries, turned out to be about one-hour dialogue. It was here Trump had announced that the two nations (the US and North Korea) had agreed to resume discussions in the coming weeks.
However, the chance for a third summit had become slim when the historic second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, ended abruptly as Trump walked out of it in a huff because Kim made some “untenable” demands.
And now at a time when all is quiet on the borders of Korean peninsula, surprisingly North Korea sounds a stern warning to South Korea, against its plans to deploy high-tech US fighter jets, F-35s, in the region.
South Korea, of the 40 F-35 jets it has contracted to buy from Lockheed Martin, has already received two F-35 jets in March and two more are expected to arrive shortly.
The North Korean warning to South Korea has clearly indicated that North Korea would respond by developing and testing unspecified special weapons on its own to destroy US-made F-35s.
To prove about North Korea’s intentions, latest reports emanating from Seoul say North Korea, under the supervision of Kim, has launched “a new type of tactical guided weapon” as a “solemn warning” to South Korea.
The North Korean warning may not have been directly targeted towards the US, but it comes at a time when relations between North Korea and South Korea have been showing improvement and the US is trying to work for a lasting peace in Korean Peninsula.
Observers say that South Korea’s move to purchase the US jets is meant to please Trump, and it is purely a business proposition. But South Korea also is aware its action in buying the jets can also increase tension in the region.
Trump, who has launched his poll campaign seeking another term in office, is surrounded by many vexing international problems. Among them are Iran’s continued threat to increase its uranium by breaking its deal with the US, the US exercising caution against possible interference of Russia in American Presidential polls, trade and tariff issues with China chiefly and partially with India.
Tension is mounting between Iran and the US, which wants to tighten economic sanctions. Though US economy has not been affected much by the “vagaries” of Trump, his tariff war with China and Russia can make some dent in the US economy. Similarly, though Trump calls India a tariff king, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds on to his foreign economic policy, which can adversely affect trade balance between the two countries. But one good news is that the US lifting of selective country-wise cap on number of green cards issued annually to immigrants and India is one such beneficiary.
If an Iran war is avoidable for Trump, working for the Korean peninsula peace may become a priority. In a Presidential election campaign-filled year, if Trump finds time to work for a third summit with Kim, and Moon delays or avoids his countries plan to deploy F-35 jets, the Korean peninsula peace is one possibility. But to make it a reality Kim must be ready to relent his stiff stand by stopping missile experimentation, defuse its nuclear arsenal and ready to open its nuclear facilities for international inspection. As of now nothing of that sort is in sight.
By J.V. Lakshmana Rao