Millions of Koreans experienced on Friday the emotional upheaval that Israelis felt when Anwar Sadat first stepped out of his airplane at Ben Gurion Airport on November 19, 1977. The hitherto unimaginable suddenly turned into reality. Just like the late Egyptian leader, Kim Jong Un was viewed as a belligerent and dangerous leader up to the moment he skipped over the concrete marker in the demilitarized zone that separates North from South Korea and suddenly transformed into a peace-seeking moderate. Kim may not have proved himself worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize just yet, but he certainly deserves an Oscar.
But just as long months of tough, crises-laden negotiations were needed before Sadat’s historic visit translated into a full-fledged Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, the road to an end to the 65-year conflict between the two Korea is still long, hard and full of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. In the end, Sadat refuted the suspicions and concerns of many Israelis and proved his genuine commitment to ending the Israeli-Egyptian conflict, but Kim’s willingness to cross the Rubicon and to disarm his nuclear weaponry is yet to be proven. Once again, experts and analysts are skeptical.
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U.S. President Donald Trump was quick to claim credit for the dramatic reversal, and his name has also been mentioned as a potential Nobel Prize laureate. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha preferred to understate the pivotal role played by her own President Moon Jae-in in bringing about the historic summit and to play up Trump’s centrality to the process, but whether she did so as a diplomatic tactic or out of loyalty to the truth is still up for debate. But even if Trump’s harsh “little rocket man” rhetoric’s and the tougher sanctions pushed by the U.S. against Pyongyang were the main reasons for Kim’s abrupt about-face, it’s too early to tell whether the U.S. president is the player or is being played. Trump’s true test will come in his upcoming summit with Kim, which is slated to take place in the very near future.
Seasoned Korea experts warn against premature enthusiasm. Kim did a masterful job of casting himself as a smiling, likable and essentially harmless statesman, a kind of Care Bear with a weird haircut that only makes him seem more childish and affable, but he remains a cruel despot who subjugates his people and threatens the world. Eternal optimists and those with short memories may have forgotten, but the meeting on Friday wasn’t the first but the third congenial inter-Korean summit to take place since the start of the 21st century. The two previous meetings, despite their lofty declarations and worthy goals, ended in bitter disappointment.
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The problem doesn’t simply lie with the known North Korean propensity to renege on nuclear deals a short time after they are concluded. Like his father and grandfather before him, Kim’s enmity towards the West and his increasingly ominous nuclear capabilities are the very foundations on which his totalitarian regime and international standing rest. The acceleration of Pyongyang’s ballistic missile program and the growing fear of its ability to strike the North American mainland are the main reasons for his emergence as an important player on the international stage. Kim may play around with promises and declarations of intent, but he knows full well that genuine disarmament would render him irrelevant and possibly spell his doom. Unless he proves otherwise, it’s doubtful whether he has any intention of actually cutting off the branch on which he and his regime are sitting.
It’s also hard to reconcile Trump’s generous and conciliatory attitude to North Korea, a country that has broken every agreement it has signed, with his steadfast hostility towards Iran, which has seemingly adhered to every last restriction imposed on it in the nuclear deal it reached with Barack Obama in July 2015. Herein, perhaps, lies the rub: Trump detests his predecessor and will do everything in his power to erase his legacy. Max Fisher wrote in the New York Times on Saturday that Trump might find it harder to enlist the international community to support any agreement he reaches with Kim while he steadfastly ignores its pleas not to abandon the nuclear deal with Iran. Trump’s mercurial unpredictability, which is credited with changing Kim’s course, could turn out to be a double-edged sword that makes him stumble down the road.
There was a dramatic difference between Kim and Moon’s touchy-feely get-together at Panmunjom and the frosty and sour atmosphere that seemed to mark Trump’s parallel meeting at the White House with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. While French President Emmanuel Macron, who met with Trump earlier this week, preferred to wrap his opposition to Trump’s policies on Iran and most everything else with shameless courtship and flattery, Merkel found it hard to conceal her distaste for the ostensible leader of the free world. Trump has shown his penchant for strong and authoritarian leaders such as Kim, Vladimir Putin and the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, but he’s had a much harder time earning the trust of his ally Merkel, possibly the most cautious and disciplined of Western leaders.
During his tense press conference with Merkel, Trump also said that he may participate in the upcoming inauguration of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Talk of his ability to achieve the “ultimate deal” with the Palestinians has receded against the backdrop of his one-sided pro-Israel policies that have delighted Benjamin Netanyahu but pushed the Palestinians away from the negotiating table. Anyone who cares for the future safety of the world must surely wish Trump every success in trying to defuse the ticking time bomb of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, but expectations for an imminent breakthrough may be premature, if not misplaced. Trump most certainly covets a Nobel Peace Prize that would confound his critics and exact sweet revenge on Obama, but the medallion, which has Nobel’s portrait and is inscribed with the slogan “for peace and the brotherhood of man,” isn’t in his hands just yet.