Historic Korean meeting plays well for Kim. Trump yet to confirm Iran sanctions waiver plan. Mahathir pledges to pardon Anwar. Bishop and Dutton at loggerheads over ASD. By Hamish McDonald.

Nobel for Trump’s chequered Korea?

Kim Jong-un (left) and Moon Jae-in at a signing ceremony in Panmunjom last week.
Kim Jong-un (left) and Moon Jae-in at a signing ceremony in Panmunjom last week.
Credit: Korea Summit Press Pool / AFP / Getty Images

So a Nobel Peace Prize for Donald Trump? South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, thinks so. Our own Julie Bishop thinks Trump deserves the credit for bringing Moon together with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in a blaze of bonhomie eight days ago in the demilitarised zone.

Such things have happened before. Henry Kissinger got the 1973 prize along with Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho for the Paris Peace Accords, despite working for a president who had interfered with negotiations to help his election and stepped up bombing of North Vietnam the Christmas before to bring things to a conclusion.

At least so far Trump hasn’t unleashed the “fire and fury” he was promising Kim last year. And in three or four weeks from now he’s moving into a showpiece summit of his own, meeting Kim. Trump favours the DMZ as the location – the Cold War theatrics would be amazing.

He feels he’s in control of the process, unlike his predecessors in the White House. “The United States has been played beautifully, like a fiddle, because you had a different kind of a leader,” Trump said. “We’re not going to be played, okay? We’re going to hopefully make a deal; if we don’t, that’s fine.”

So far, most Korea specialists think Kim is playing Trump adroitly in competitive brinkmanship. All events this year flow from Kim’s move last year to step up testing of nuclear warheads and long-range missiles with the aim of achieving capability to strike the US mainland. With Trump holding back from pre-emptive strikes, Kim flicked the switch back to diplomacy at New Year.

There is short-term pain for North Korea, in the shape of sanctions joined by China. But Kim’s elite and military have buffer stocks, and his population has no power to complain. The economic squeeze will be harder to keep up with Kim so friendly. Already Moon is talking about reopening transport links. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, was in Pyongyang on Wednesday.

In return, Kim has yielded nothing much, beyond willingness to talk about complete “denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula, timing and extent not specified.

Trump reads far too much into this. According to the South Koreans, he wants disarmament completed by the end of his current term, in early 2021. His new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, insists Kim will have to outline “complete, verifiable and irreversible” dismantling of his nuclear capabilities at the meeting with Trump. His new national security adviser, John Bolton, seriously says “we’re looking at the Libya model”, not mentioning where that left Muammar Gaddafi.

Perhaps these advisers want Kim to be exposed as a bluffer trying to buy time and sanctions relief, so they can get back to sabre-rattling. But that could be hard in the détente the South Koreans have achieved. They can’t be sure Trump will stick to the script, either. NBC reports two White House staffers said Trump’s chief of staff, retired general John Kelly, had to restrain the president in February from ordering immediate withdrawal of the US garrison in South Korea.

Kim is meanwhile getting the recognition he craves as leader of a de facto nuclear power: meetings with China’s Xi Jinping, South Korea’s Moon and soon the US president, who calls the man who had his own half-brother murdered with nerve-agent just over a year ago “very honourable”.

Waivering support

Trump was keeping everyone guessing about whether he intends to extend the US sanctions waiver on Iran connected to the nuclear restraint agreement reached in 2015, which reversed Tehran’s progress towards weapons capability. He dismisses suggestions that backing out of the Iran deal might bring into question any pledges he makes to Kim.

Three of the other signatories – Britain, France and Germany – agreed last Sunday that the agreement was the best way to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons. In a rare departure from his “joined at the hip” mode with Washington, Malcolm Turnbull agreed this was the case with the visiting French president, Emmanuel Macron. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the US State Department both certified last month that Iran was complying with its terms.

Not so Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. On Monday he mounted a special event, standing in front of a giant sign reading “Iran lied”, and reading from documents he said Mossad agents had stolen in January from a secret repository in Tehran, showing Iran had been working on developing nuclear weapons while denying it. Netanyahu had an audience of one in mind. The sanction waiver expires next Saturday.

Pardon, Mahathir?

Malaysia’s Najib Razak is taking no chances in the general elections on Wednesday, with officials doubling down on restrictions to hamper opposition to his Barisan Nasional coalition and ensure a majority sufficient for Najib to stay in the leadership of its main element, the United Malays National Organisation.

On top of the intensified gerrymandering we’ve already reported, which theoretically allows the BN to win with 16.5 per cent of the vote, the electoral commission has knocked out several opposition candidates on dubious grounds, and barred candidates from campaigning other than in their own electorates, or from displaying themselves with anyone but their own party leaders on posters.

A lot of this is designed to stop former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, still active at 92, from employing his appeal among ethnic Malays more widely. In a sentimental video posted on YouTube, Mahathir promises to use his remaining time on Earth to help clean up Malaysian politics. He’s also said that if returned to power he will pardon his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, currently jailed for sodomy, and step aside for him.

All very noble, if it’s forgotten that Mahathir started the pro-Malay gravy train that Najib has so egregiously exploited, and first employed a sodomy charge to knock out Anwar from challenging his leadership in 1998. But it’s also academic, given the rigging of the election. Canberra seems to have turned down an invitation to send observers to this farce.

Home spies

Earlier this year we reported how the defence forces had created a new signals intelligence and cyber command to ensure support for military operations remains top priority for the Australian Signals Directorate, long our key player in the “Five Eyes” intelligence pact with the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

A contest to divert ASD capabilities to civilian law enforcement is deepening, with last weekend’s leak to the Sydney Sunday Telegraph of correspondence between Greg Moriarty, the Defence Department head, and Mike Pezzullo, the head of the new Home Affairs Department. It’s erupted into open sniping between Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who thinks it dangerous and not needed, and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who thinks it a great idea.

Bishop is battling on other fronts. On Monday, former Australian ambassador Geoff Raby said a “security establishment” – comprising the Defence and prime minister’s departments, the intelligence agencies, and allied think tanks – had decided the China relationship is too important to trust to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“The foreign minister’s, and hence her department’s role in managing this critical relationship has become inconsequential,” Raby wrote on the Pearls and Irritations website. “To try to play herself back into the Canberra–China game, the foreign minister gave a bizarre speech, written by her office, in Singapore last year in which she declared China to be unfit for regional leadership because it was not ‘democratic’. The department did not see the final text until it was delivered. Part of the problem for DFAT is that their minister is not trusted by the prime minister.”


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 5, 2018 as "Nobel for Trump’s chequered Korea?".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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