The Trump-Iran-North Korea Imbroglio

April 10, 2018

Forty-seven years ago, today, the U.S. table tennis team arrived in China. Later in the year, in July 1971, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a secret trip to China   paving the way for Richard Nixon’s own visit. The U.S. President and his Chinese hosts agreed to the joint “Shanghai Communique” of February 27, 1972, in which both nations pledged to work toward the full normalization of diplomatic relations. As part of the effort toward that end, on May 1, 1973, the U.S. opened a liaison office in Beijing to handle all matters in the U.S.-China relationship “except the strictly formal diplomatic aspects of the relationship.” China created a counterpart office in Washington in the same year. Finally, on January 1, 1979, the U.S. recognized People’s Republic of China and established diplomatic relations with it as the sole legitimate government of China.

At the time Turkey had also launched talks with China in Paris and the Nixon administration was pressing hard to discourage the Turkish government from establishing formal relations with Beijing soon. Regardless, the talks continued for some months, and Turkey officially recognized China on August 4, 1971, long before the U.S., a tribute to Turkey’s Republican diplomacy when policy was driven by strict adherence to national interests and not, as some claim today, acquiescence to the will of foreign powers.

In Ankara, the talks were supervised by the Directorate of Policy Planning where I had just started my diplomatic career. At the time, China’s ambassador to France was Huang Zhen, a former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs. Our ambassador was former Foreign Minister Hasan Esat Işık. Reading his reports on the negotiations was a wonderful diplomatic lesson for us beginners and looking at the Korean Peninsula today brings back fond memories.

In remarks before the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, 2017 President Trump said that the scourge of our planet today is a small group of rogue regimes. On top of his list were North Korea and Iran. He made no distinction between the two. Six months later, it was announced that Kim Jong-un wished to meet President Trump and the President agreed to meet him by May to achieve “permanent denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, a very ambitious target.

While many were speculating on different aspects of the summit, North Korean leader paid a visit to Beijing, his first trip abroad since he came to power in 2011. Some called this a “surprise visit” but it was anything but a surprise. While it supported new and tougher UN sanctions on North Korea in December 2017, Beijing remains North Korea’s only ally and major trading partner. Thus, both countries had to display a certain harmony before the Kim-Trump summit. The visit enabled China to show the world that it remains central to the settlement of the problem and the North Korean leader to project himself as a responsible statesman standing next to President Xi Jinping.

His trip to Beijing was neither the beginning nor the end of Kim Jong-un’s public diplomacy campaign. In a televised new year speech on January 1st, he had said, “We should melt the frozen North-South relations, thus adorning this meaningful year as a year to be specially recorded in the history of the nation.” In February, North Korean athletes and entertainers and important personalities attended the 2018 Winter Olympics, hosted by South Korea. On April 1st Kim Jong-un, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol attended a concert of South Korean singers and performers in Pyongyang. North and South Korea will hold their first summit in more than a decade on April 27. And Kim Jong-un’s meeting with President Trump, regardless of the outcome, will further elevate his status. Many would still say that he remains a ruthless dictator, but some may start thinking that he plays his foreign policy cards rather well.

When the two meet President Trump will surely press for concrete undertakings that would reflect a serious commitment toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong-un, however, would be unlikely to take such commitments. He would probably say that he is ready to launch a broad process which covers denuclearization as well as normalization of relations between the two Koreas. He may also try to sound his American counterpart out on possibilities for improved relations with Washington including the ending of sanctions and why President Trump is such a strong critic of the Iran nuclear deal.

At this point, the modalities of the summit including the question of date and venue are the subject of intense diplomatic talks. No matter where it is held President Xi Jinping, who at least for now appears to be China’s President for life, would be the invisible or perhaps visible third party at the summit. Date is particularly important because May 12 is the day on which President Trump must either sign a presidential waiver on sanctions on Iran or put Washington in violation of the landmark nuclear deal. North Korean leader may therefore prefer a date in the second half of May. That this meeting coming at a time when Michael Pompeo and John Bolton are entering America’s foreign and security policy domain also warrants further analysis and forecast.

The upcoming summit has opened the field from cautious to pessimistic scenarios. At one end of the spectrum would be agreement for follow-on meetings between senior officials. At the other end would be failure and once again rising tensions. And though this may be a very long shot, what if the two Koreas were to unite someday and declare their intention to remain a peaceful nuclear power in a move that will impact the strategic landscape in southeast Asia and beyond as well as America’s regional security guaranties?

As for Turkey, last Tuesday Presidents Erdoğan and Putin launched the construction of the reactor building of Akkuyu, Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. Moreover, Russia agreed to accelerate the delivery of the S-400 systems at Turkey’s request. At two leaders’ joint press conference Mr. Putin said that in 2017 Russian-Turkish trade increased by 40.5 percent to $22.1 billion and Russia has become the third largest market for Turkish exports after Germany and China. He added that Turkey has risen to 7th place among Russia’s largest foreign economic partners. After the trilateral summit on Syria which also included President Rouhani, three leaders tried to project unity, at least on safeguarding Syria’s territorial integrity. However, serious differences remain.

The Ankara summit was held at a time of Russia-West and Iran-U.S. tensions. If one were to take a broad look at the atmospherics of this meeting and the EU-Turkey leaders’ meeting held in Varna two weeks ago, one cannot but say “what a contrast!”

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