US and North Korea ready for talks. Italy swings right. Islamists and secularists will face off in Indonesian poll. By Hamish McDonald.

Trump and Kim head to Singapore

Figures of Kim Jong-un (left) and Moon Jae-in are packed up after an anti-America rally outside the US embassy in Seoul last month.
Figures of Kim Jong-un (left) and Moon Jae-in are packed up after an anti-America rally outside the US embassy in Seoul last month.
Credit: Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images

All obstacles are being cleared for Donald Trump’s meeting in Singapore with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un which, barring a sudden tantrum on either side, starts at 9am on Tuesday.

Kim acted to quell possible dissent in his own military about engaging with the Americans by sacking three top generals in the Korean People’s Army, according to a report by South Korea’s state Yonhap news agency quoting intelligence officials.

Trump for his part has sidelined hawkish national security adviser John Bolton from the talks. He’s also backed away from the all-or-nothing demand for “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” or CVID as they say in strategic circles. The shift started as he welcomed South Korea’s Moon Jae-in in Washington last month. It would be difficult to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons in a single step. “It would certainly be better if it were all in one,” he said. “Does it have to be? I don’t think I want to totally commit myself.”

Then in a cordial meeting with North Korea’s former intelligence chief Kim Yong-chol on June 1, where he received a letter from Kim Jong-un, Trump said he was no longer talking about the sanctions squeeze on Pyongyang. “I don’t even want to use the term ‘maximum pressure’ anymore, because I don’t want to use that term because we’re getting along,” Trump said. “You see the relationship.”

That was news to his secretary of defence, James Mattis, who was in Singapore for the annual sabre-rattling exercise for military types, the Shangri-La forum. “North Korea will receive relief only when it demonstrates verifiable and irreversible steps to denuclearisation,” Mattis said, before adding, in regards to the summit: “We can anticipate, at best, a bumpy road.”

A lot of analysts who know about previous rounds with the North Koreans think Trump might be about to throw away the ascendancy he achieved in last year’s mutual provocations with Kim. Trump’s threats of military action alarmed the Chinese and Russians so much they agreed to United Nations Security Council sanctions on trade with North Korea.

Now, in his apparent eagerness for a “deal” he seems ready to agree to a phased reduction in North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. China is already anticipating the easing of economic sanctions. Its national carrier, Air China, has just resumed flights into Pyongyang that were suspended last November as part of the sanctions.

Kim Jong-un, meanwhile, gets upfront what had previously been seen as the end result of a long period of building trust and implementing agreements: a face-to-face meeting with a sitting United States president on equal terms, something not achieved by his predecessors, father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung. In Singapore he is also likely to get a declaration that the Korean War is over, 65 years after the truce. South Korean reports say Moon Jae-in is readying to fly to Singapore to join Trump and Kim for the announcement just after their talks.

Kim also tried to one-up Trump in accommodation. While Trump is booked at the Shangri-La Hotel, Kim went for the Fullerton, the converted British-era general post office where rooms go for up to $A8000 a night. But later reports said he’d have to settle for the St Regis, on a par with the Shangri-La. As the Singaporeans are picking up Kim’s tab (the Americans would be breaking their own sanctions if they paid), they may have put a limit on the expenses. Kim will be joined by the much-pierced American basketball star Dennis Rodman, an old buddy and intermediary.

Italy rights itself

Things have moved along quickly in Italy after President Sergio Mattarella moved to appoint his own choice as prime minister in place of the one proposed by the biggest parties emerging from elections.

The chastened parties, the far-right League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, promptly agreed to drop the Eurosceptic economist Paola Savona who they’d proposed as finance minister. Thus their government, led by law professor Giuseppe Conte, was installed on June 1.

Talk of leaving the euro is out for now and capital flight has eased. But the new government will test European consensus. The League wants a 15 per cent flat tax, and half a million migrants detained then deported. Five Star wants to introduce a universal basic income. All this would blow out budget targets agreed as a condition of European Central Bank loans. Conte has also called for a review of sanctions against Russia.

For the first time, populist parties have taken power in a European core country, and though Five Star has slightly more deputies, the League is dominant. Furiously egging them on has been American alt-right figure Steve Bannon, former Trump campaign adviser and founder of Breitbart News.

One of his acolytes, former Fox News commentator Richard Grenell, has just been installed by Trump as ambassador to Germany. In an interview with Breitbart last Sunday, Grenell said he felt “excited” by Europe’s swing to the right and wanted “to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders”. Like America, Europe was “experiencing an awakening from the silent majority – those who reject the elites and their bubble. Led by Trump.”

Grenell can expect back-up from US government broadcasting services. Another Bannon friend, filmmaker Michael Pack, has been nominated to head Washington’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, which supervises Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and Radio Liberty and controls a $US685 million budget. Pack comes from the conservative Claremont Institute, and is noted for his claims American students are being indoctrinated with “politically correct” ideas on the environment and gay culture.

Prabowo courts  Islamists

Indonesia’s parliamentary and presidential elections a year from now are shaping up as a nasty showdown between secularists and Islamists.

Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, will be seeking his second term as president. When he campaigned last time in 2014 he had to deal with fake news that he was neither Muslim nor fully Javanese but rather a secret Christian hiding Chinese ethnicity. The new insinuation is that he and the party backing him, the secular–nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, are virtually the same as the former Indonesian Communist Party or PKI, which most considered to have been wiped out by the mass executions and arrests when the army seized power in 1965.

The perceived connection is the pre-1965 political balancing act of nationalist, religious and communist forces by the late president Sukarno, father of the PDI-P current chair Megawati Sukarnoputri. Well-known Muslim preacher Alfian Tanjung tweeted recently that “85 per cent” of PDI-P members were PKI.

With the same deference to Muslim groups shown in last year’s Ahok case, where the Christian and ethnic Chinese former Jakarta governor got two years’ jail for citing the Koran wrongly in their eyes, a court has acquitted Tanjung of a hate-speech charge over the tweet. He had just “copied and pasted” the material, the judge ruled.

Hoping to harness the Islamists is Jokowi’s defeated rival in 2014, Prabowo Subianto, the former special forces general and one-time son-in-law of the late president Suharto. A week back Prabowo was on the Haj in Mecca, where he met up with the politician Amien Rais, founder of the Muslim-based National Mandate Party.

Together they met fugitive cleric Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, a leading figure of the Islamic Defenders Front, whose thugs are notorious for busting up bars and other places of sin and attacking adherents of minority religions, and which led mass demonstrations against Ahok.

Rizieq is wanted by Indonesian police on a pornography charge, after pictures from a steamy relationship of his went out on social media. Rizieq’s friends told journalists Prabowo was seeking his support for next year’s election. Of course if Prabowo follows the playbook of his late father-in-law, he will use the Islamists to get into power, then suppress and manipulate them.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 8, 2018 as "Trump’ll suit Kim and spin gold into straw".

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