By Kumar David –
US liberal media and Democratic Party-centre are fast losing traction: Kim-summit failure may suit Trump
Many in the US justifiably believed that Trump fled from home because the heat was turning up. His former long-time attorney Michael Cohen testifying before Congress, as expected made a blistering attack, casting his former boss as “a con man”, “racist” and “cheat”. Multiple investigations have turned the presidency into a nightmare. The Mueller Report due soon may tie him to collusion with Russia. The foreign policy scene is chaotic; he threatened to remove Venezuela’s Maduro but he finds himself on a sticky wicket because the military is clinging to the discredited dud; his off the cuff promises to pull out of Syria and Afghanistan have become problematic; the trade-war with China is stuck. The American President needed escape from this purgatory.
The most serious confrontation is with Congress and will turn into a constitutional crisis. Trump demanded $5.6 billion to build his infamous Wall on the Mexican border; Congress refused, he responded by declaring a spurious Emergency which allows him to grab funds from other sources (e.g. monies lying in crevices in the military budget). Congress declared the Emergency proclamation a hoax and voted to annul it. He will veto that and bipartisan proponents will not be able to muster the two-thirds majority required to override a veto. He will then snatch funds from wherever possible and a constitutional crisis will pave the way to the 2020 congressional and presidential elections.
It is against this domestic backdrop that we need to ponder the long-term consequences of the first (Singapore) love-in and second (Hanoi) estrangement. The US media view is that these are exercises in distracting attention from fiascos in the domestic arena and not of much value to the US. It is fantasy, it reckons to imagine NK’s capabilities can be neutralized; at the moment there is a freeze on all tests but this can be reversed at a moment’s notice and NK is continuing to build nuclear and missile capability.A deal leaving a significant portion of NK’s nuclear-tipped missiles in place would rob the US of leverage. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank based in Washington says “NK has at least 13 operating missile bases that it has not declared with the ability to launch missiles reaching the continental US even after American air strikes. After extensive research, including interviews with NK defectors and US intelligence officials, it appears NK currently has 15-20 missile operating bases”.
US strategists concerned that Trump, eager for an agreement because of other woes, would give too much for too little in return, are now relieved that he walked away and restored the status-anti. NK wanted two things, a peace declaration officially ending the Korean War and the lifting of sanctions. The former removes the threat of regime change and encourages the reduction of U.S. troops in South Korea. Sanctions relief would allow NK, a country with great economic potential, to pursue profitable projects with the South and joint ventures with global investors. The negotiating game went like this: US officials including Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley, former UN ambassador, insisted on “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” before scaling back UN Security Council sanctions restricting external trade to humanitarian assistance and small quantities of fuel. Pyongyang asked for “phased and synchronised denuclearization”, meaning sanctions would be gradually relaxed or dropped in step with denuclearization, rather than waiting till its completion. It was deadlock.
Liberal media and Democratic Party in a flop
Painting on a wider canvas than merely the collapse of the Trump-Kim summit, a big picture is emerging. The relentless onslaught on Trump as idiosyncratic, dishonest, narcissistic and a bad president, is justified; the adjectives are true. However, the blitzkrieg has done what damage it can do and is not injuring him any further. The Trump-Base, perhaps 25% of the electorate is not budging in loyalty. Nor will the failure of the summit impact negatively on Trump’s ratings as reverting to the pre-Singapore status quo has its domestic supporters. I can’t estimate reliably, but say another 40 to 50% of Americans have no faith in Congress, the Democratic Party (DP), the Republican Party and politicians of all hues. If Americans learn Sinhala the axiom “ung okoma kalakaniyo” could become an Americanism.
I detect a profound shift in the DP. There is an unmistakeable leftward shift; how they talk, the people in focus and the hollowing out of its centre. The 2018 elections shot a bunch of radical Democrats into the House of Reps; many young, many women including Alexandria Octavia Cortez who I brought to the attention of Lankan readers 10 months ago when she was not recognised even by the US media. She made the cover of the Economist only last month. Bernie Sanders announced his presidential candidacy three weeks ago; within a week he raised $10 million in small donations and is taking town-hall meetings by storm. Other DP hopefuls are shifting their talk and their walk; suddenly healthcare for all, student debt, tax policy and a minimum wage are hot topics. Oh dear reader, I do appreciate that as when I drew your attention to the decline of alt-right populism, so too till ‘scholars’ and the western media “announce” it, you won’t take notice of what I say. No problem; nevertheless there is a big shift in the DP’s works.
What after the failure?
Kim wants the world to get comfortable with the idea of NK in possession of a nuclear arsenal. He is not going to throw away decades of research; it’s naive to think he will do so except in exchange for huge economic concessions and watertight security guarantees. The US negotiated because it was alarmed by NK’s capabilities; furthermore, in the eyes of American strategists both Kim and their own leader are unstable. Kim needed to leave Hanoi with a signed agreement and NK was casting the summit as a success even before it happened. Some claim, though I doubt it, that it was willing to give away everything including all the facilities at Yongbyon. Pyongyang is hard to read but the stunning collapse must have been unexpected and left NK’s team of seasoned negotiators bewildered. Trump claimed that NK demanded all sanctions be lifted at once but NK then took the extraordinary step of calling its own press conference to insist it only asked for gradual easing.
A summary of NK’s weapons capabilities goes like this. Throughout 2017, NK tested missiles demonstrating rapid advances in military technology. KN-17 (Hwasong-12), range of 4,500km (2,800 miles), can reach the US base in Guam; KN-20 (Hwasong-14), range 10,000km, is an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching New York; finally KN-22 (Hwasong-15) puts the entire United States within range. The US has advanced interceptor technologies in its arsenal but if even one nuclear tipped missile reaches a big US city it’s doomsday for America. The yield of the 3 September 2017 nuclear test, most experts estimate, was 100+ kilotons – more than five ‘Hiroshimas’.
The two Kores remain officially at war as no peace treaty has been signed. An armistice was entered into in 1953 and a Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) established by the UN (USA), China and North Korea. Behind the DMZ and beyond the reach of US and SK artillery, NK’s missiles have the ability to destroy two-thirds of South Korea’s industrial and critical infrastructure.
Although there are reports that NK’s economy has improved in the last five years, others say prosperity is visible only in Pyongyang and confined to the well-to-do classes. The countryside is still said to be dirt poor though food shortages have eased after the bumper harvest of 2014. As recently as January 2018, UNICEF launched a $16.5 million emergency relief package while the government funnelled a quarter of its revenue into military programmes! South Korea is the country most alarmed by NK’s military capability and is shaken by the collapse of the Hanoi summit. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is on record last year saying “Chairman Kim has repeatedly expressed his strong will to denuclearize; he wants to focus on economic development”.
But we are not back to square-one because a US military strike at NK is no longer thinkable and war on the Korean Peninsula is near impossible in the foreseeable future. Kim will keep his bombs and missiles for now and presumably be smart enough not to carry out any more tests. The downside for him is that US enforced sanctions remain in place. So his obvious game ploy is to convince China and Russia, and more discreetly South Korea and Japan that he went a long way offering concessions that the US rejected. China and South Korea are critical; the former can turn a blind eye to sanctions evading goods transported into NK by rail and South Korea is keen to improve economic conditions in the North, the one sure road to lasting peace. The overall scorecard at this point in time reads Kim 2, Trump 1; 3 in total, so some progress has been made on a tinderbox issue though to appearances the summit collapsed.
How will this play in the bigger global picture. The two principal issues that will determine the future of the world in the Twenty-first Century are Climate Change and Sino-American relations. The US-NK drama is, comparatively, a storm in a teacup. The US is embroiled more deeply than it need have been because of Trump’s unnecessary fireworks in 2017. China on the other hand is sitting on the side-lines and contemplating how to best exploit things. Naturally it is worried about a nuclear-armed missile-capable North Korea on its doorstep but on the political side it is pleased that the US and Japan continue to be tied up in knots and need Beijing as a go between. Ah well, the world most likely will keep going round and round as usual.