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A showdown of the alpha males

March 9, 2018

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un have so far been busy trading threats and insults. The US president’s planned meeting with the North Korean leader marks a surprising turn in the decades-long conflict, says Alexander Freund.

Südkorea Donald Trump und Kim Jong Un im TV in Seoul
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Young-joon

Everyone is applauding, including China and Russia. The planned summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korea's ruler Kim Jong Un would represent a historical milestone.

South Korea's president Moon Jae-in has described the proposed meeting as "almost a miracle." Moon very much deserves the credit for this apparent rapprochement.  

The South Korean leader's détente policy, which initially drew sharp ridicule from critics, relies on a balanced mix of stringent sanctions and willingness to talk.

Presumably, such a summit of the two alpha males, Trump and Kim, would be a media spectacle, and each can present himself as the winner. Trump could claim that his tough approach and bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea paid off and knocked reason into the "Rocketman."

Freund Alexander Kommentarbild App
DW's Alexander Freund

Kim Jong Un, in turn, will present himself as a triumphant leader to his isolated people, pointing out that he — with the help of his nuclear and missile tests — has finally managed to get the "mentally deranged US dotard" to engage in direct talks with the North Korean leader.

Symbolism and tradeoffs

Beyond the bombastic rhetoric, it will be far more important to observe what steps the two leaders will ultimately agree to take at the symbolic summit.

In exchange for extensive security guarantees to North Korea and the leadership, Kim could offer a general halt to nuclear and missile tests and even agree to a denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

But Kim will certainly demand a high price for such a move.

In return, the US would have to put an end to its joint military exercises with South Korean forces and perhaps even reduce the presence of American troops in the region.

Trump would probably be in favor of such an arrangement, as he could boast to his electorate that he has protected the US from North Korean missiles, while saving a lot of money for American taxpayers by reducing the number of troops deployed overseas.

Clever diplomatic maneuver

Doubts still hover about North Korea's claims that it had tested a hydrogen bomb or that it is able to hit American territory with its missiles.

But Pyongyang's actions and rhetoric have showed effect: North Korea is now taken seriously and it has successfully maneuvered itself toward the negotiating table.

The Kim regime has learnt a lesson from the recent past, and under no circumstances does it want to experience the same fate as Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

That's why the "pretty smart cookie," as Trump called Kim at the start of his presidency, desperately wanted to maximize North Korea's threat potential. Of course, the sanctions that followed have hit the already impoverished country hard, but Kim's oppressed people have been used to deprivation for decades anyway.

Read more:

South Korea: 'Too early to be optimistic' on North

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe warns North Korea talks could be ploy

Beyond the alpha males, therefore, it's important to see what will change in areas that matter most to normal citizens. Will they be able to live in peace and security? Will the families that have remained separated for decades see each other again? Will the two states gradually develop harmonious relations and perhaps even reunite in the foreseeable future?

Such a reunification would be something to wish for, after all these painful decades in the history of Korea.

But the gap between the North and the South is much larger now than the one that existed between West and East Germany at the time of their reunification. The North Korean regime has systematically isolated and oppressed its people, even by operating concentration camps.

In this context, the upcoming meeting of the two Korean leaders as well as the showdown between Trump and Kim may be important milestones. But creating mutual trust and reconciliation will take a long time and can only succeed if the wrongdoers are held to account, which we Germans know only too well. By then, Trump and Kim will be history.