A historic moment - but now what?

Editorial | Mary Ma 2 Jul 2019

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un must be caught up in a feeling of his own self importance these days.

Not only did President Xi Jinping come to see him in Pyongyang, so did "Uncle Sam" US President Donald Trump.

Only two months ago, Kim was dealt a de-facto snub by Russian strongman Vladimir Putin during his first visit to Russia.

No wonder Kim, in a Mao suit with rigidly waxed hair, happily stepped out of a building to take Trump carefully by the hand to enter his side of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

That was undoubtedly historic: Trump became the first US commander-in-chief to set foot on North Korean soil while in office, while Kim fulfilled an achievement that neither his father nor grandfather managed to accomplish.

Both leaders gave what each other wanted.

Aware of his approval ratings lagging that of some Democratic presidential candidates, Trump grabbed some baubles to dangle before American voters by rekindling hopes of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

At the same time, Kim scored a propaganda victory.

Making history was the bottom line of Trump and Kim's third rendezvous. But what's expected now?

Prior to the DMZ summit, Trump lowered expectations by making it as casual-looking as possible, tweeting the day before that "I will be leaving Japan for South Korea (with President Moon). While there, if Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say hello(?)!"

Was it like dropping in on an old acquaintance? It couldn't have been as impromptu as that, for US media in Trump's entourage reported it was an open secret among them.

It remains to be seen whether the reopened talks will last with enough momentum to cut a deal, in light of the failure in making meaningful progress after their first meeting in Singapore and second in Vietnam. After all, Kim wants United Nations sanctions to be lifted such that he can start rebuilding North Korea's economy that's reportedly 90-percent dependent on Chinese trade at present.

Will Trump give that to him?

In return, Trump wants Kim to abandon his nuclear arms - so much so that he can ballyhoo an achievement that none of his White House predecessors, including Republicans and Democrats, had been able to boast about.

However, that will be easier said than done.

First, it would be impossible to ignore Beijing's role in the triangle. Would Xi allow the other two to deal with each other alone if Washington didn't make some concessions in its trade and technology wars against China?

Second, would Kim agree to disarm himself at all, knowing that North Korea could be left irrelevant if he forsook nuclear threats, even if the Americans were willing to lift sanctions partially or totally?

It seems Trump would have to offer more to the rest of the triangle if meaningful progress is to be made.

But then, he needs a deal that would have to be big enough to wow his supporters back home.

Will Kim and Xi let him have that?

As the 2020 US presidential election looms, time is running short for Trump too.

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