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What’s at stake as Trump practices reality TV diplomacy?

Michael H Fuchs

Singapore summit was the latest episode in the TV series starring the US president Donald Trump, North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and a stockpile of nuclear weapons. And the episode was one of those deeply intriguing yet unsatisfying cliffhangers leaving the audience wondering what happens next.

Welcome to diplomacy, reality TV style. Both sides wanted a show for the cameras, and they got it. But this, of course, is not TV. It was the first ever meeting between a sitting US president and a leader of North Korea to discuss one of the world’s most intractable and dangerous conflicts.

In the coming days and weeks everyone will have a hot take on the “historic” meeting between Trump and Kim. Critics will say Trump is getting played. Supporters will resuscitate their calls for the president to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

My hot take? Take a deep breath. Put down Twitter. Any genuine progress with North Korea will take time. Likewise, a breakdown in diplomacy may not be visible immediately, and its consequences certainly won’t be.

And with the erratic behavior of both Trump and Kim—remember recently when the summit was off?—expecting negotiations with North Korea to unfold in a linear fashion would be the triumph of hope over experience.

With the ups and downs to come, the United States must keep its eye on the ball: Reducing the North Korean threat to the US and her allies. And everything must be scrutinised: When it comes to North Korea— and Trump— don’t trust; verify.

Scrutinising what we know so far, the outcomes of the Singapore summit leave the door to progress open just a crack. As long as there are serious talks, there’s a chance for making headway.

Diplomacy is not an end in itself, but with North Korea, with whom the US does not have formal relations, regular, high-level talks can help reduce tensions, lower the chances for miscommunication that could lead to conflict, and keep open the possibility for finding solutions.

But there are many reasons for caution, and concern. The vague joint statement – much less detailed than either the 1994 Agreed Framework or the 2005 Six-Party statement – contains no specific commitments by North Korea. No commitment to inspections or verification. No commitment to interim steps to denuclearisation. There’s not even a commitment to continue a freeze on nuclear and missile testing.

Diplomacy with North Korea requires scepticism. Pyongyang has long ignored the demands of the international community to give up its nuclear programmes, its aggressive behaviour, and to end its systemic human rights violations. All previous diplomatic agreements failed.

On the other hand, diplomacy with Trump requires scepticism. Today, Trump is heralding a historic deal, but tomorrow he could decide he’s done with diplomacy. Just days before the Singapore summit, Trump agreed to a communique with the leaders of the G7, then withdrew his support hours later. With Trump, always take events one day at a time.

Scepticism is also required because verification of any eventual agreement is hard. Really, really hard. The only way to verify that North Korea has taken concrete steps towards denuclearisation is to have international inspectors on the ground in North Korea with access to every part of its illicit programmes. Even assuming complete access, one estimate by an expert who has viewed North Korea’s nuclear programme in person was that disarmament could take upwards of 15 years.

The comprehensive inspections regime assembled for the Iran nuclear agreement apparently wasn’t good enough for Trump administration, which ripped up the deal. What kind of inspections regime would be acceptable to the Trump team is unclear. But talk of verification is getting ahead of ourselves because there are no specific commitments yet to verify.

Understanding the results of the meeting won’t be possible for a while. In the meantime, the world does not stand still. Kim Jong-un’s coming-out party and meeting with a president of the United States has given Kim—perhaps the world’s most brutal dictator—more credibility on the world stage.

The “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions is dead as others rush to engage a North Korea no longer seemingly shunned by the world. And until North Korea takes verifiable steps to stop its programmes, Kim continues to be able to build more nuclear weapons and missiles.

Going forward, effectively addressing North Korea requires close coordination with America’s democratic allies. Trump calling US-South Korea defensive military exercises “provocative” – as well as his temper tantrum at the G7 meeting in Canada – are examples of how Trump continues to undermine US alliances and America’s ability to effectively deal with North Korea, not to mention myriad other global challenges.

No progress on North Korea will be possible without diplomacy. But diplomacy must be done right. So far, Kim Jong-un appears to be leaving Singapore with a spring in his step. It’s unclear if Trump left Singapore with anything.

Trump mentioned he would visit Pyongyang and that Kim would come to the US at the “appropriate time”. So perhaps Trump  wants us to tune into the next episode to find out what happens. – Writer is a former deputy assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs. This article first appeared at theguardian.com

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