Can we trust Trump in his diplomatic dance with a dictator?

Published by The ipaper (14th May, 2018)

The Today programme on Radio 4 often sets the news agenda with tough interviews and taut foreign analysis. Yet on Saturday David Beasley, a former Republican governor turned World Food Programme bigwig, was given time to waffle vacuously about seeing people plant crops in fields during a short trip to North Korea. ‘There’s a sense of optimism,’ he gushed. ‘There’s a sense of turning a new page in history, writing a new chapter, going forward in peace and opportunity.’ He even suggested without challenge that his four-day visit, accompanied by minders, offered the best access any outsider had been given to the hermit kingdom since 1961.

But many Westerners have visited North Korea, even running marathons and taking cycling trips. I went five years ago for a week, travelling by train from China and then driving down to the demilitarised southern border zone. I joined weeping locals beside the waxy corpses of Kim’s Jong-un’s predecessors. I watched a cruel circus with sad ice-skating bears, then attended the Arirang games with amazing mass choreography. I enjoyed a funny, drunken night of karaoke with four minders (although one stayed sober to monitor events). Yet everything was controlled. And almost everything was designed to glorify the ruling dictatorship.

I left with more questions about this secretive neo-fascist state than when I arrived. I was given huge quantities of food to prove there was no hunger following the devastating famine at end of the last century. I was told I could go anywhere. But when I dived into a shop that seemed to sell only red shoes, the woman inside looked terrified and hastily locked the door when I left to prevent other foreigners entering her premises. When I took a photograph of a female work party marching along the road, an official jumped out from behind a bush and started screaming.

One day I asked my minder if I could go to the sort of bar used by ordinary citizens in Pyongyang (albeit accepting that only members of the elite can live in the capital). Of course she replied, taking me to a simple place for a beer and some dried squid. I felt chuffed as I downed my drink – only to discover when I went to the toilet even this was a Potemkin place for foreigners. Another time my minder lost our pass for travel along the empty roads heading south; she looked terrified until it turned up.

Is it really possible these shackled people might soon be free – or at least relations with the world’s most repulsive regime normalised? Later on Saturday came news Pyongyang plans to start dismantling its Punggye-ri nuclear test site this month in front of foreign journalists. This follows release of three American captives, greeted by Donald Trump ahead of his meeting with Kim in Singapore next month. These are stunning moves – not least since just a year ago the United States President was threatening ‘fire and fury’ for his ‘Rocket Man’ foe.

Everyone wants a peace pact on the Korean peninsula. But we must remember this is not just another nation. North Korea is a place of unparalleled barbarity that runs death camps, a regime that condemns three generations to lifelong slave labour for minor transgressions of one family member. I have met defectors, even guards and survivors of these camps, and heard chilling insights into the horrors of this hideous regime. For the sake of 25 million people trapped under a cruel family dictatorship, we must be cautious over suggestions North Korea is truly coming in from the cold.

Kim is boxed into a corner by sanctions, economic struggles, Chinese pressure and probable damage to his nuclear test site after the last detonation, which literally moved a mountain. Yet this regime spent decades developing nuclear and chemical weapons as its ultimate protection. It has a history of lying over these programmes while using peace discussions to strengthen its deadly arsenal and armed forces. The nation is ruled by a man who happily used a nerve agent to kill his own half-brother and has tightened border controls to stop defections. So do not be duped by images of a smiling despot or airy talk of “optimism” from an instant expert.

Perhaps we are witnessing an unpredictable president force a maverick dictator to make peace. But it remains hard to see why the shrewd Kim would relinquish his most powerful shield, especially when some information about the outside world is seeping through the bamboo curtain and weakening his control. It might simply be as one key official stated to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to Pyongyang: it is now regime policy to focus on economic progress since they had “perfected” their nuclear capability.

It is all too possible that Trump – naive, inexperienced and desperate for a foreign-policy win – is playing into Kim’s hands, providing time to recreate a test site and aid to help develop the economy while offering the cachet of equal status to the world’s most powerful man, something North Korea has long sought. Trump has also indicated he wants to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War, which would fuel questions over the need for nearly 30,000 American troops on the peninsula.

Last year in Seoul I met a former special-forces soldier from North Korea, who told me his commanding officer sneered at the gullibility of outsiders during previous peace talks. ‘North Korea appeared to be offering a deal and negotiating terms,’ he said. ‘Behind the scenes they were planning revenge and war.’ Hopefully things are different now, for the sake of those enslaved people and the wider world. But can we trust Trump to make the right moves in his diplomatic dance with this dictator?

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