The dictator of a small impoverished country is the center of attention of the whole world with all eyes eager to watch the “historic” handshake between Kim and Trump
North Koreans have finally got what they wanted: a possible meeting with the American president who is supposed to be the upholder of capitalism and the leader of the free world even though some may dispute this characterization given his “America first” inclination no matter what happens to the rest of the world.
It is quite an achievement for a young dictator in his early 30s to be able to invite American president and have him accept the invitation on a discussion agenda that is surprisingly vague and fuzzy. The dictator of a small and relatively impoverished country is the center of attention of the whole world with all eyes eager to watch the “historic” handshake between Kim and Trump. Suddenly the “rocket man,” a term used by Trump to characterize Kim, is now someone who has gained the stature to sit across the table with the US president and engage in a dialogue on peace and stability of the planet. For Kim it must be the peak glory of his regime that had eluded both his father and grandfather in the past.
It would be reasonable to guess that past US presidents were reluctant to meet the North Korean president simply for providing photo opportunity while the basic issues of denuclearization and the institutionalization of peace in Korean peninsula remained in limbo at the official level. But Trump prides in the fact that he is a “deal maker” and one characteristic of his deal-making seems to be his ability to remain unpredictable. This is probably the reason why his staff turnover at White House is unusually high. The tension and the stress inherent in his unpredictable and unorthodox behavior is probably too much even for seasoned and articulate advisors. Interestingly, North Korean president seems to believe in the same dogma: he has also established his credentials for unpredictability as evident in his decision to engage in winter sports diplomacy after a verbal battle that seemed like a background for a destructive war. Suddenly Kim has taken a different turn that is leading now to a meeting with American president.
It is well known that an unpredictable behavior on the part of a leader creates tension and anxiety about the future. Keeping people in suspense all the time gives a sense of power to the leader and makes it possible to create an environment of intimidation and fear. But when both adversaries in a confrontation use the same theme to assert themselves what can we expect about the possible outcome? Common sense would indicate that in this situation Trump would be in an advantageous position to prevail since the US is overwhelmingly stronger than North Korea in terms of all indicators of national strength.
Unpredictability in the use of this awesome power if there is no progress in denuclearization would be a factor that the North Korean regime cannot ignore. On the other hand Kim probably feels that his only chance for saving his dictatorial rule is to rely on the nuclear program so that he does not have to share the fate of leaders like in Libiya and Iraq. In their confrontation with the US both Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi had rejected the nuclear option and yet they died unceremoniously.
Specter of conflict
If we define the world as a universal set with different subsets of conflict zones North Korea is the crucial element of one such subset that has the potential to cause mass-scale destruction. Apart from the US there are other members in this subset, notably, China, Japan and South Korea whose interests cannot be ignored. Any arrangement that serves the interests of the US while taking a relaxed posture on the interest of other nations in the subset can create more problems than solutions. Similarly, it would be difficult for Kim to ignore Chinese interests when he talks with the US president. The Chinese, after all, is the main lifeline of his regime and it is certainly not in Chinese interest to see North Korean regime collapse under American pressure.
Adopting unpredictability as a strategy does not necessarily mean that the players are unaware of the risk involved in its execution. Ideally, the hope is that all players, especially North Korea and the US, would aim for equilibrium model—equilibrium between contradictions, reason and thoughtlessness—where the risk of deviation from the accepted framework backed by other nations in the conflict subset is properly spelled out for both. This could mean an iron-clad guarantee for the stability of the North Korean regime. Regime stability and not regime change may have to an outcome of this exercise.
If we follow this line of reasoning an agreement based on the general contour of US-Iran understanding on Iran’s nuclear program could be viewed as a benchmark option where the penalty for deviation is generally understood. But for Trump this is probably not acceptable because the revision of Iran deal was an important plank of his election campaign last year. This view has gained momentum since John Bolton who is famous for his hard-line and is viewed as a “cheerleader” for preemptive strike against North Korea is now the new national security advisor—the third in Trump administration in 14 months.
In inter-state dealings planned unpredictability as a component of strategic deception can be part of a policy to confuse the outsiders. Both Kim and Trump may be on the same wavelength on this score. It can be part of a well thought out process though others see it as irrational. However, if unpredictability is simply an emotional impulse to satisfy one’s ego it could easily fail to evaluate the multi-dimensional impact of a decision that could lead to many secondary and tertiary consequences not seen before. This is where an unpredictable leader stumbles into a destructive war.
The great scientist Stephen Hawkings had a dim view of human ability to live in peace. He advised human beings to find another planet to save human civilization in the future. On the other hand, Sigmund Freud in his famous correspondence with Albert Einstein almost over a century ago was a little more hopeful and saw the possibility of human beings reining on their destructive instinct—the death instinct—within the framework of a civilization that appeals to the instinct of preservation—the love instinct. Watching the current tango of two unpredictables it is hard not be apprehensive about the future.
The author is president of Ekikrit Rastriya Prajatantra Party