Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump shake hands at a summit in Singapore in 2018. Images: PA“If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea with potentially millions of people killed.” Even in announcing his summit with Kim Jong-un in Vietnam on 27-28 February to a cluster of TV news anchors, Donald Trump could not resist making the two leaders' follow-up encounter all about himself. Trump imagines that his relationship with Kim is a good one, the two sides have made progress, and this is owed above all to his unique deal-making abilities.
It's true at least that tensions between Washington and Pyongyang have indeed eased. The most vivid symbol of this is the two men's meeting in Singapore on 12 June, with its apparently jovial atmosphere and promising, if purposefully vague, result. Yet the widespread view among most serious analysts is that so far, Kim has gained much more than Trump from the process (see "Kim vs Don: the Singapore sting", 14 June 2018).
That judgment starts with the very fact of that summit, which gave the young North Korean leader an unparalleled standing on the global stage. It continues by citing the agreed statement on denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, which though strong on intention is notably weak on detail. And it draws on several leaked US intelligence sources in the post-Singapore months that North Korea has continued to produce nuclear weapons, even if it has suspended actual tests of these (and of intercontinental ballistic missiles).
Trump himself can discount or dimiss these reports, just as he has airily castigated his intelligence services on other facts that don’t suit what he wants to believe. The way that the media caravan has moved on from North Korea to a succession of other stories also helps him to avoid too much scrutiny on any particular one. So the world is left to report, once more, Trump’s utter belief in his own supreme abilities.
This cosmic self-regard carries a risk, however. If Trump continues to ignore evidence that undermines his needy ego, any about-face in the cosy relationship he wants to uphold could turn quite suddenly into a dangerous crisis (see "North Korea: a catastrophe foretold", 29 September 2017).
Indeed, the potential for such a change arose on 4 February, the very eve of the president's boast about the upcoming Vietnam talks. It came with the leaking of a report by United Nations experts who had been charged by the Security Council with monitoring Pyongyang's compliance with UN sanctions. The experts conclude that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes remain intact, and that the regime's missile assembly and testing facilities are being dispersed as a protective measure against a sudden conflict – expected to start with a US “decapitation” attack.
Equally damaging, the UNSC document finds that North Korea is evading UN financial restrictions, ignoring an arms-export embargo, and engaging in “a massive increase in illegal ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products and coal.” This is serious enough for Washington – all the more because, at the very same time, Pyongyang has been able to build closer links with an amenable South Korean government.
These elements reveal Kim Jong-un’s overriding strategic objective: preserving the family dynasty in Pyongyang, now to be secured by a push for economic growth. At the same time, he is intent on avoiding any serious negotiations on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. In principle it looks a hard trick to pull off, but the events of these eight months show how far Kim has already gone by exploiting – and even connecting – two precious assets.
The first is the trademark Trump ego, which takes narcissism to unusual heights even for a head of state. He is convinced that he has achieved a great foreign-policy success and it will take a great deal to persuade him of the contrary. But if that did happen and his attitude flipped to belligerence, then Kim Jong-un's second factor kicks in.
The Seoul government welcomes the change in Pyongyang's behaviour and is keen to encourage further detente. Since the third bilateral summit between Kim and South Korea's president, Moon Jae-in, in October, both sides have scaled back forces on the demilitarised zone (DMZ). As well, one of the cross-border railway routes has been reopened, in turn enabling South Korean railway engineers to start surveying many hundreds of kilometres of the North Korean network with a view to a comprehensive upgrade.
This intra-Korean process of economic cooperation is set to expand. Any abrupt Trumpian change of mind will thus have to reckon with considerable opposition from Seoul, and doubtless too from a Chinese government which with less fanfare has been repairing its own relationship with Pyongyang.
In a region with so many weapons and perils, where the AIM phenomenon (accidents, incidents, mavericks) is ever present, a peaceful outcome is far from assured. But at this stage, between Washington and Pyongyang, it is less the White House narcissist than his opposite number, Kim Jong-un, who looks the great deal-maker.