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A strategic shift in the making
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 06 - 2018

If everything goes according to announced plans in Washington in the last few days , the world is poised to witness a historic hand shake never seen before between a sitting American president and North Korea s supreme leader . Next Tuesday , June 12 , President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong -un would hold their much anticipated summit in Singapore . The Summit, after being cancelled by President Trump , only on May 24 last , has been reconfirmed by none other than President Trump himself last Friday , June 1 . His announcement came after a ninety -minute meeting at the White House with the Vice – Chairman of the Central Committee of the ruling party in North Korea , Kim Yong-chol , who handed a letter from Kim Jong -un to the American president , an letter which he described as very interesting , without going into details . Seemingly , this letter was the reply to the famous letter that President Trump had sent to Chairman Kim on May 24, notifying the North Koreans that he is calling off the Singapore Summit because he thought that the time had become inappropriate due to some fiery statements by senior officials in Pyongyang.
What was more surprising than the sudden shift in mood at the White House concerning the convening of the Summit as originally scheduled , was the fact that the position of President Trump on the nature and the objectives of the Singapore meeting fundamentally changed. Prior to his letter date May 24 , his position had been that the Summit would lead to an agreement on the rapid and complete denuclearization of North Korea , and that the American campaign of maximum pressure on North Korea would be maintained till the time Pyongyang meets the American demands concerning its nuclear arsenal .In the meantime , the Summit was considered a one -time event , with no sequel between the United States President and Chairman Kim .
All this has changed after the meeting on June 1 at the White House with the North Korean emissary . President Trump started talking of a “ process “ to achieve joint goals between North Korea and the United States , and held the possibility of other meetings with the North Korean leader . He even went as far as dubbing the Singapore Summit “ a getting to know you meeting, plus.” Diplomatically speaking , this could mean that the way Washington looks at the first summit between the United States and North Korea has undergone deep changes as of its nature and finality . It won t be a meeting where the American delegation, headed by President Trump, would dictate to Chairman Kim what to do , and at what pace , in order to end the sanctions regime against North Korea .The Summit has become normalized , that s to say to tone down high unfounded American expectations that the North Koreans would be dictated to by way of ultimatum. Summits among heads of state don t function this way . They are meant to charter a new course at the macro strategic level , and details of policies left for less senior officials to work them out . In fact , the welcome changes in the American approach to the Singapore Summit ensures a minimum measure of success .At least the fears by many in the United States that it could end in failure because of a probable non -compliance by the North Koreans as far as denuclearization is concerned have been lessened now that the American administration has started talking of a “ process “ , a change that brings it closer , a lot closer for that matter , to the North Korean approach .
Last week , we have witnessed a gradual softening in the American approach to dealing with North Korea .Not only in terms of substance , but also when it comes to dealing publicly with all questions related to North Korea .We have detected a serious attempt to show more respect for the sensitivities of the North Koreans . As a telling example of this more subtle approach to dealing with Pyongyang , the meeting between President Trump with the North Korean emissary last Friday at the White House was not attended , either by Vic-President Mike Pence , nor by John Bolton , the national security adviser . The two had infuriated the higher echelons of power in Pyongyang with their talks of applying the Libyan model of denuclearization in the case of North Korea.
The White House meeting with Kim Yong -chol on June 1 was preceded by a meeting in New York City between Yong -chol and the United States Secretary of State, Mark Pompeo , who had previously met Chairman Kim Jong -un twice in the last two months , once when he was still the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency , and the second time as the Secretary of State . And he had also held talks with Jong -chol . Thus he is in a better position , than many in the White House, including President Trump himself , to understand how to deal with such a highly -sensitive question , from a North Korean point of view, that of denuclearization and the security worries of the North Korea .In other words , he understands that the nuclear arsenal that Pyongyang has built over the years is meant as a protection and a security guarantee for the North Koreans to deal with the consequences of the Korean War on the overall security environment in the Korean Peninsula . If you want North Korea to agree to denuclearize , then you must be prepared to provide for the security guarantees it would demand in return . Similarly , if the ultimate objective of the United States is the “ complete , verifiable , and irreversible denuclearization “ of North Korea, then it should be incorporated in a larger strategic approach to peace and security in the Korean Peninsula .
And maybe this what Secretary Pompeo had in mind when he pointed out, after his talks with Jong -chol finished on May 31 in New York, that the two sides “ have made real progress in the last 72 hours towards setting the conditions …. Putting President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong -un in a place where we think there could be real progress made by the two of them meeting .” And to add that there had been conversations between the United States and North Korea “ about how we might proceed, what the path might be forward so that we can achieve both the denuclearization that the world demands of North Korea and the security assurances that would be required for them to allow us to achieve that.”
This sounds sensible enough to expect the Singapore Summit to launch a process that would , ultimately and hopefully , succeeds in reconciling the security interests of all parties concerned with peace and security in the Korean Peninsula , as well as the security environment in North East Asia.
And if the news reported by the JoongAng Daily on 3 June, that South Korean President Moon Jae would join the Singapore Summit is confirmed, then the world shall be witness to an earth-shaking summit that could result in the announcement of the official end of the Korean War ( 1950-1953). This would be the first and essential step in a “process” set in motion by the Singapore Summit that would steer the Korean Peninsula towards a nuclear-free zone.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

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