Historic Korean talks ahead of Trump and Kim meeting. Macron charms on US trip. Timor poll holds up gas plans. By Hamish McDonald.

Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in meet in the DMZ

South Korean soldiers at the military demarcation line in Panmunjom, in the demilitarised zone, earlier this month.
Credit: Jung Yeon-je / AFP

His batteries of loudspeakers silenced instead of blasting K-pop northwards night and day, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in was due to meet North Korean dynastic leader Kim Jong-un yesterday in the Panmunjom truce village on the peninsula’s dividing line, the demilitarised zone, only the third such summit of the two states and the first in 11 years.

The readout this weekend will give clues to the main game – the impending summit between Kim and Donald Trump in late May or June, likely to take place in more distant neutral ground, anywhere from Ulaanbaatar to Geneva depending on Kim’s confidence in his ageing Soviet-era air fleet.

Nuclear and international sanctions trade-offs are beyond the South Korean president’s ambit. The chief interest will be his pursuit of a peace treaty to replace the truce suspending hostilities, more or less, since the 1950–53 Korean War. If followed by reductions in conventional forces along the DMZ, it would bring a sense of more secure peace to Seoul, which is in range of North Korea’s artillery. It could, however, also erode or end the legal mandate for the US involvement in Korea, declared by the UN Security Council in 1950 during a Soviet boycott of proceedings and never rescinded thanks to US veto powers.

Prising apart South Korea and the US could be seen as one longer-term goal for Kim, but he’s taking it slowly. A week ago, he dropped removal of the 28,000 US troops in South Korea as a precondition to any steps towards nuclear weapons reductions. He may even want the Americans there, to keep the Chinese from thinking that a reconciled Korea is naturally their tributary nation.

In another gambit, Kim also announced last weekend that he was suspending tests of nuclear warheads and intercontinental missiles, as well as closing down the only known nuclear test site in his country’s north-east.

The reaction displayed the gulf between this master of the arcane Korean strategic game – with institutional knowledge passed down from his father Kim Jong-il and every move thought out – and the impulsive political newcomer in the White House. Trump tweeted that North Korea had “agreed to denuclearization (so great for World), site closure, & no more testing!”

Not exactly, Mr President, most analysts were saying. In announcing the suspensions, Kim said: “Under the proven condition of complete nuclear weapons, we no longer need any nuclear tests.” So there was no commitment to denuclearise. Pyongyang has to close its underground test site anyway: the terrain is too fractured to contain any further tests.

At most, the gesture signals a willingness to eliminate intercontinental missile capability, the cause of current US alarm. Few see North Korea as ready to destroy its existing nuclear weapons stockpile, or its arsenal of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Not surprisingly, Japan’s Shinzō Abe kept his silence, standing alongside as Trump enthused.

Trump and Kim will go into their meeting each convinced his own toughness – Kim with his weapons tests, Trump with his sanctions and military threats – has forced the other into negotiating a deal. Both will have deadlines. Sanctions have put Kim’s economy in a death squeeze. Trump wants to show his deal-making skill ahead of November’s midterm congressional elections.

Kim will have the higher ground. He will have already got a recognition that eluded his father and grandfather: a meeting on equal terms with a sitting US president. His status as a nuclear power is effectively recognised. Trump will be tempted into an incautious deal that will ease sanctions and let Kim quietly work on perfecting his nuclear deterrent while fraying US guarantees to Japan and South Korea, and keeping China off balance.

Sweet Macron

French president Emmanuel Macron was meanwhile deploying full Gallic charm in Washington this week to persuade Trump not to abandon the nuclear limitation deal that’s in the bag, the one reached in 2015 by the US and five other powers with Iran.

Trump wants to destroy this agreement, partly because he feels a psychological need to pull down anything achieved by predecessor Barack Obama and partly because his supporters see Iran as the source of all evil in the Middle East.

With Republicans controlling Congress, US administrations were put on a short leash over the agreement. Every three months the president has to notify that Iran is complying, or US sanctions are reimposed on it. The next deadline is May 12. Iran says it may resume nuclear activities “at much greater speed” if sanctions resume.

Along with Britain, Germany, Russia and China, France thinks the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)with Iran is achieving what was intended – halting Iran’s progress towards nuclear weapons capability. The other worries cited by Trump – ballistic missiles and interventions in Syria and Yemen – are separate issues.

“I’ve never been as critical of the JCPOA as President Trump has, because I believe we can add to it,” Macron said after their meeting. “But not knowing the decision President Trump will take, I would like us to work on a deal to build on what has already been accomplished on the JCPOA, which is beyond the current activities, the ballistic activities and the regional influence.”

Macron may have achieved something. Trump said he could agree to a “new deal with solid foundations” negotiated by US and European officials. Excessive flattery helps win over Trump, as Kim might note.

Sunrise cash cow

Timor-Leste’s parliamentary elections on May 12, called after Mari Alkatiri’s minority government failed to pass its yearly budget, are shaping as a slugging match between tired veterans, Xanana Gusmão’s coalition versus Alkatiri’s Fretilin. And while the politicos battle, the chance to develop a vital petroleum resource may be slipping further away.

The recent agreement with Australia on new Timor Sea boundaries, reached under international supervision, awaits ratification by the new parliament. The new government will then need to clinch a deal quickly with the Woodside Petroleum consortium to get the big Greater Sunrise gas field developed before the money runs out from existing oil revenue savings in the Petroleum Fund.

Technically the easiest and certainly the cheapest way would be to connect Greater Sunrise by pipeline to the existing liquefied natural gas plant operated in Darwin by ConocoPhillips, one of Woodside’s partners. But that avenue could close soon with another gas field in Australia’s offshore zone, Barossa, filling the upcoming spare capacity in Darwin.

If he regains power, Gusmão may not care. He shows no signs of abandoning his pipedream of bringing Greater Sunrise to a string of future industries along Timor’s desolate south coast. Alkatiri would be more realistic.

Meanwhile, Canberra is still trying to shield us all from detail of its dealings with Indonesia and Timor-Leste over the Timor Sea resources. On May 30, author Kim McGrath goes into the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to object to redactions in 24 files on the negotiations released by the National Archives.

This week, Greg Hunt, acting as attorney-general in place of Christian Porter, notified McGrath he had signed a public interest certificate that will mean much of the evidence is heard in-camera as it would prejudice the “security, defence or international relations of Australia” if it were heard in public. Our ministers and diplomats must have been very devious indeed.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 28, 2018 as "Kim’s Moon landing ahead of rockets talks".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.