Theatre in international relations

Astute analysts of global affairs, (even at this eleventh hour, would probably not bet their houses) on the absolute certainty of the June 12th ‘summit’ between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, the clear signs that the two men are now likely to meet and talk in Singapore, a week today, notwithstanding. But then, equally, few people anywhere, either experts on global affairs or casual watchers of international relations, would have expected that just months after Pyongyang’s commencement of test-firing of inter-continental ballistic missiles, Trump and Kim would have arrived on the cusp of sitting down together. Even in what, these days, is a quixotic world of international relations, there has been more than a hint of the bizarre in the twists and turns in relations between Washington and Pyongyang these past few months. 

  If it is still far too early to clearly define relations between their two countries, the two leaders, not without a good deal of   bold diplomatic support from South Korean President Moon Jae-in have managed what may well be the most daring turnaround (if indeed Washington/Pyongyang relations can be so described at this early stage) in inter-state relations in living memory. Recall that it was just a matter of months ago that North Korea’s incessant missile test-firing had put both the US and the Asian Peninsula into a political tailspin and when President Trump had threatened to put an end to the nuclear ambitions of Rocket Man (a sobriquet he had designed for Kim Jong-un) by simply unleashing a tirade of ‘fire and fury’ on North Korea, talk of a possible nuclear confrontation actually crossed the lips of some jittery analysts.  Such talk had derived from the demonstrably mercurial and unpredictable dispositions of the two principal protagonists in the drama.

Momentous events in relations between and among states are often driven by larger than life political actors possessing both outsized egos and a flair for brinkmanship. Such has been the case with both Trump and Kim, who, in the period leading to the present, had engaged in a war of words which frequently banished the various other global happenings to ‘also rans’ in terms of international newsworthiness. The two men, by continually upgrading their invective, displayed a sustained sense of drama which, while it unfolded, extended more than any other episode in modern inter-state relations, directly, sometimes worryingly into the realm of brinkmanship.

Theatre and showmanship are intrinsic parts of Donald Trump’s DNA. Those propensities have now been infused entirely into his presidency. Kim’s disposition derives from the enigma that is North Korea and the permanent sense of uneasiness (some may even say paranoia) it feels over the near global isolation that it has had to endure over the decades of its existence as a state and the permanent insecurity that attends that condition.

Given North Korea’s unending economic woes, investment in ballistic capability would have been an enormously costly exercise. It would have been, as well, a carefully calculated one, a pointed attention-getter, in circumstances where, over time, it had drifted further and further in the direction of being the world’s most isolated country. In the final analysis, however, the investment and more specifically Pyongyang’s repeated testing of its ballistic capability, got the Kim regime what it wanted, a heightened level of awareness and anxiety among states on the Asian Peninsula, particularly South Korea and Japan and as well, the focused attention of – and, it now seems, direct engagement with – the Trump administration.  

It was the persistence of Pyongyang’s missile testing that pushed things to a point where President Trump’s attempts to dismiss the testing as exercises in bluff and bellicosity lost their traction and served to heighten security   concerns  amongst North Korea’s neighbours given their own inability to match Pyongyang’s new found ballistic capability. In those circumstances Trump would have felt some pressure to take a softer line with North Korea.

It was much the same for Kim. The quest for ballistic capability was clearly an exercise intended to secure a measure of leverage, both in terms of the security of the North Korean regime and equally importantly, to create a bargaining chip with which to engage both Washington and its Asian neighbours on the matter of ending both its diplomatic isolation as well as the economic sanctions that have strangled the country’s economic progress. For Kim, diplomatic and economic engagement with the rest of the world may well have implications for the very survival of his regime. Seemingly significantly improved relations with the south (though it must be assumed that a significant amount of suspicion remains on both sides) has been North Korea’s first real gain from the process. 

In the fullness of time South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is almost certain to become a prime candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was Moon whom, over many weeks of painstaking diplomacy, engineered a shift in the paradigm, persuading both Washington and Pyongyang that the Seoul Winter Olympics could serve as a lever with which to shift the relationship away from one of brinkmanship to a more reasoned environment. Having pressed the Winter Games into serving as the first stanza in a series of foreign policy initiatives, Moon then engineered a flurry of diplomatic traffic (in which he was directly involved) among the capitals of the two Koreas and Washington involving high officials of both the US and North Korea, below the Heads of Government themselves. These achieved two significant objectives. First, they rolled back whatever further missile tests Pyongyang might have been contemplating. Additionally, they brought an end to the extreme verbal hostilities on both sides.

 Tensions could only be expected to ease at that point in time when it became clear what both Washington and Pyongyang wanted. From Washington’s standpoint a nuclear-armed North Korea that posed a permanent threat to its Asian allies and even to the US is untenable even though it has to be said that, whatever may be put on the table by Trump in Singapore, it is difficult to see Pyongyang surrendering altogether all of the gains that it would have made in the quest for nuclear capability. At least, however, the raising of the stakes has come with what could emerge in Singapore as a changed equation in which North Korea is engaged rather than left isolated and vulnerable to internal rumblings that might threaten the Kim regime. Leaving North Korea to shape its own future, possessed of few resources outside of a ballistic (and perhaps even a nuclear) capability would radically and dangerously alter the global balance of ‘power’ in an already unstable international community. Singapore, hopefully (and this is by no means a certainty) will bring an end to the sense of theatre that characterizes the Trump/Kim exchange.

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