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'That Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un were able to reach an agreement must be welcomed'

Because of the enormous stakes for everyone on the planet, all we can do is hope and pray now, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

“COMPLETE DENUCLEARISATION OF the Korean Peninsula.”  These are the words now being poured over by foreign policy scholars around the world. For this is the language employed in the short text of the agreement reached by Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un at their highly anticipated summit meeting in Singapore this week.

Before considering the different interpretations of what North Korea means in committing to “denuclearisation” and the divergent takes on which of the two leaders can be called the winner, it is important to state that, fortunately, what many observers feared might occur did not come to pass.


It had been posited that two notoriously volatile and unpredictable men could clash and that the meeting would end badly and precipitate a frightening return to a standoff – or perhaps worse.

Moreover, the rumour was that President Trump did not prepare, planned to rely exclusively on his deal-making instincts and would know within the first few minutes of conversing with his counterpart whether the engagement would be worthwhile.

In truth, at least insofar as none of what was mooted actually transpired, the summit has to be labelled a success. That Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un were able to reach an agreement – any agreement – and seemed to get on amicably while hammering it out must be welcomed by all.

It was an undeniably historic moment, even if some of the American president’s most vociferous enemies are reticent to recognise it as such and are determined to downplay the benefits that may flow from it.

Dubious of intentions

That said, there is every reason to be dubious of North Korea’s intentions. Experts started sending signals before the ink on the document drafted in Singapore was dry.

Their basic point is that the two nations define “denuclearisation” very differently. The United States insists it means the voluntary, relatively swift dismantling of their nuclear arsenal; North Korea has a broader idea and would read words, like gradual, and notions, such as its being accompanied by other countries taking similar steps or making substantial other concessions, into the term.

It has been noted that North Korea has abandoned agreements in the past. Also, crucially, there is no mention of either verification or inspections to ensure that they are living up to the bargain. Responding to these criticisms, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserts that more was agreed by the two governments than appears in the text.  But if precedent is any dictate, that won’t amount to much.

Political reaction

The political reaction to the summit has, as could be expected, been shaped inexorably by views of this unprecedented president. The Democrats’ leader in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, charges that President Trump “handed Kim Jong-un concessions in exchange for vague promises” and acted in “haste to reach an agreement.”

Meanwhile, one of the prominent figures on the “never Trump” right, Bill Kristol, writes that the president “trumpets a North Korea policy of amoral weakness.”

This comes hot on the heels of the widespread revulsion at President Trump’s nasty and disparaging tweets about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who complained of new US tariffs and asserted that his country would not be pushed around.

The Washington, DC political establishment and the leaders of both parties, in public and in private, collectively lamented an administration that seems less at ease with old allies and close friends than with Kim Jong-un.

Missing a trick

They are still missing a trick. As three-time presidential candidate Pat Buchanan – who, like him or loathe him, many years ago identified the anti-internationalist wave that Donald Trump rode to the White House in 2016 – writes, “[Trump] promised to negotiate with Putin and improve relations with Russia. He promised to force our NATO allies to undertake more of their own defence.  He pledged to get out and stay out of Mideast wars, and begin to slash the trade deficits that we have run with the world.  And that’s what America voted for.”

In short, they cast a vote to tear up the rule book and to repudiate conventional wisdom.  To those who are disgusted by their choice, they can – not without justification – retort in part that following the old rules and conventional wisdom led to failed wars, the export of millions of well-paid jobs and the dissipation of America’s moral authority in the world.

The opinion polls indicate that most of these men and women remain supportive of Donald Trump, despite scandals, disappointing behaviour and perpetual chaos. Of course, November’s mid-term elections are all but certain to engender gains for Democrats, but that party needs desperately to settle on a message that goes beyond bashing a president they cannot abide if they are to reconnect with the disaffected residents of “Middle America.”

A microcosm

The summit with Kim Jong-un and the resulting agreement is, in some ways, a microcosm of the Trump presidency thus far. The meeting was on. It was off. Then it was back on again.

No one knew what would happen between the two men. Afterward, Trump tweets that it was “amazing”. His opponents say it was not.

Will it work ultimately? Because of the enormous stakes for everyone on the planet, all we can do is hope and pray.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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