It is all but forgotten that the Korean War (1950-53) was brought to an armistice only after India agreed to make itself available to chair the UN Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission that determined which of the North Korean soldiers in Allied custody, and which of the South Koreans being held by the North, wished of their own volition to be repatriated. Such was the level of trust in India of all the combatants. Perhaps the Capella Hotel meeting between Trump and Kim in Sentosa Island of Singapore would have taken place in Bangaram island of Lakshadweep if Modi’s India were held in the same respect worldwide as was Nehru’s India in his heyday.
However that may be, the attention of all the world has been focused on this unprecedented meeting between two heads of state who, in the words of the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “in each of these countries are the only people who can make decisions of this magnitude, and those two people are going to be sitting in a room together”. (Extraordinary, this equation of governance systems in democratic Americana and dictatorial North Korea!)
Pompeo, of course, did not add that till under a year ago, one of them—Trump—was describing the other—Kim—as “short and fat”, a “Little Rocket Man” on “a suicide mission” and “obviously a mad man”, whose country he would destroy in a blaze of “fire and fury”. Kim repayed the compliment by describing Trump as a “frightened dog” and “a mentally deranged dotard” (sounding exactly as if they were Modi and Shah on the campaign trail!) Kim’s people went further to declare that Trump frequently tweets “weird articles of his ego-driven thoughts”, “spouts rubbish” and, therefore, we cannot “be pinning hope on that mad guy”.
Yet, here they are together in Sentosa, vying to get the Nobel Prize for Peace! What gives? Clearly, for all his bravado, Trump was frightened out of his wits by Kim’s success on November 28, 2017. Kim had successfully test fired the Hwasong-15 inter-continental ballistic missile that, nuclear-tipped, had the potential of hitting the US mainland, besides, of course, the principal allies of the US in the region. This was swiftly followed by Kim’s New Year day address in which, while pressing his claim to “perfecting the national nuclear forces”, he renewed his pledge of denuclearisation subject to the US removing all threats to his nation and its regime. Trump grabbed at this life-line.
This is in many ways a tribute to Trump’s agility in recognising when to call it quits. Trump decided to meet Kim “with his eyes wide shut”, in the cruel but accurate assessment in Politico (April 30) by one of the America’s leading academic experts on North Korea, Van Jackson. Fully cognisant, as Abigail Tracy in Vanity Fair (March 30) remarked that “three successive US administrations have failed to thwart three successive generations of Kims”, Trump tweeted a month later that a “deal with North Korea is very much in the making”. Moreover, brushing aside the US State Department and its much vaunted “expertise”, Trump rejected “the stilted, scripted, sclerotic ways” of professional US diplomats. He decided to “fly by the seat of his pants”, going into the summit all alone, without advisers and after barely glancing at truckloads of briefing papers. All in his expectation that “I will know pretty quickly whether or not, in my opinion, something positive will happen. And, if I think it won’t happen, I am not going to waste my time. I don’t want to waste his time (either).”
I write this last paragraph as Trump heads back to Air Force One for the journey home. What was the outcome of this global spectacle? The dampest squib in diplomacy: Trump has just done a Modi.
Aiyar is a former Union minister and social commentator.