Vague
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - June 14, 2018 - 12:00am

The Devil, it is said, is in the details.

The much-touted Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un meeting in Singapore last Tuesday was long on optics and short on substance. It can only be that. This diplomatic version of a whirlwind romance did not allow enough time for expert panels from both sides to work out a clear path forward.

Trump and Kim did sign a communiqué at the close of their meeting. It was a vague document that contained no details. There was no plan and timetable indicated. At worse, the well-photographed summit could be nothing more than a flash in the pan for a long and turbulent relationship.

This, too, is understandable. Trump is a man with little patience for details, let alone facts. By his own admission, he goes by gut feel. The Singapore meeting, according to the most acute experts, was an event set up for faith to trump reality.

This is not surprising. Trump is a creature of reality TV. Images are more important than substance. Sound bites are more important than blueprints. Body language is more important than reasoned consensus.

Kim, for his part, is as inscrutable as the Sphinx. Perhaps because of the language barrier, he speaks very little. In diplomacy, that is often an advantage.

If there were any verbal agreements reached during the Trump-Kim one-on-one, there is no official record of them. No one can claim later that what was not said was breached.

If Kim surrendered any concessions to Trump, those are not part of the public record of the meeting. He speaks little and says none. It was enough for him to be photographed as a peer of the leader of the world’s only superpower. Domestically, that justifies the great cost of pursuing a nuclear weapons program that demanded so much sacrifice from his people.

Trump, for his part, loves to blabber. Shortly after the vaguest of communiqués was signed, he admitted one concession to Kim. The US, henceforth, will desist from conducting joint military exercises with South Korea.

This is a clear concession Trump allowed without consulting his military brass. If the meeting was a low-scoring football game where only one goal was scored, that point belongs to Kim.

Round One goes to the North Korean leader. Trump did not only announce conceding joint military exercises were “provocative,” not to mention expensive, and will be suspended. Nowhere in the communiqué, in the press statements and in the record of the discussions was the matter of the dreadful human rights situation in North Korea mentioned.

North Korea won a concession on a matter that was of grave concern for its leadership. The democratic countries won nothing on the matter of human rights that was a central concern for them.

The vagueness of the communiqué indicates that Kim was prepared for a long game. The summit itself was organized at the drop of a hat; the fruits of this event may take many years to gestate.

Kim Jong-un is all of 34 years old. He has the time, and apparently the patience, to play the long game, winning small concessions over long negotiations until they add up to something meaningful.

Trump is a septuagenarian who will soon begin losing his faculties if he hasn’t already. He cannot take long courtships. He has a record for meaningless one-night stands. The protracted and probably brutal negotiations expected to follow from this breakthrough will test his famously short attention span.

The US defense establishment sets a very high standard for what they want from North Korea. They want the rogue state to “completely, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle” (CVID) its nuclear weapons arsenal. That process is nowhere to be found in the language of the communiqué.

It does seem that the North Korean panel played harder ball than Donald Trump’s boys.

Status quo

Some of Trump’s cheerleaders, before the meeting happened, raised the possibility of the two leaders signing an end to the Korean War. That could not be a realistic outcome.

The Korean War was not exclusively between Washington and Pyongyang. The expeditionary forces involved the participation of 34 countries under a UN mandate. These forces were hurriedly dispatched after North Korea embarked on an invasion of the south. The UN and all the 34 countries involved are parties to any formal cessation of hostilities.

The Philippines is a party to any negotiations about the formal cessation of hostilities. We dispatched troops to fight under the UN flag. That contribution Seoul recognizes with much gratefulness.

Pyongyang has never demanded a formal cessation of hostilities. Her most immediate concern is alleviating the crippling effects of economic sanctions. Those sanctions were imposed precisely to punish the North for embarking on its nuclear program.

There is no reason yet for the sanctions to be lifted. North Korea remains economically isolated notwithstanding all the hopeful rhetoric emanating from the Singapore meeting.

Some countries in the vicinity of the Korean peninsula are quite content with the prevailing status quo.

China sees its client state North Korea as a useful buffer zone between itself and the strategic US military presence in South Korea. Pyongyang usefully barks at Beijing’s behest. The economically crippled North Korean regime can be relied upon to do the nasty things Beijing would not be caught doing.

The Philippines, too, is happy about the blooming prospects for partnership with the prosperous South. The last thing we want to see at this point is South Korean investments being sucked into the North in the event of reunification.

DONALD TRUMP KIM JONG-UN
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