World

Trump and Kim hold second summit on North Korea’s nuclear program. Marshall Islands seeks to lift atolls as climate change sees oceans rise. The US plans to send further aid and impose additional sanctions on Venezuela. ISIS brides in limbo. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Making nuclear summits great again

US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, meet in Hanoi on Wednesday.
Credit: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Vietnam: In Hanoi this week, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un met for a second summit to address North Korea’s nuclear program. Trump revels in the theatrics of these summits, apparently overlooking that he is lending stature to a despot who holds power through mass enslavement, torture, imprisonment and murder.

“[You are] a great leader,” Trump told Kim after their dinner on Wednesday at the Metropole Hotel. “I think you will have a tremendous future with your country.”

Before the formal talks began on Thursday, journalists covering the event were advised of the expected outcome: there would be an “agreement signing ceremony” at the Metropole at 3.50pm.

By Thursday afternoon, the ceremony had been cancelled as the realities of trying to resolve this decades-old conflict overcame Trump’s apparent belief that a deal would flow from a “wonderful dialogue”.

The success of a potential deal will depend on detail, and on Kim’s predilections, not Trump’s jubilant tweets. This became clear in Hanoi, as the talks faltered over Kim’s demands that international sanctions should be entirely lifted.

“It wasn’t a good thing to sign anything,” Trump said. “Sometimes you have to walk.”

The Trump–Kim encounters, reminiscent of the great Soviet–American summits, are designed to be spectacles, yet the Hanoi meeting was quickly overshadowed by events in Washington.

At a congressional hearing, Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, described the president as a racist conman who knew about Russia’s plans to meddle in the 2016 election, as well as plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow and payments to cover up Trump’s alleged affair with Stormy Daniels. The Republicans stuck by Trump, who said Cohen was “lying in order to reduce his prison time”. Still, the hearings demonstrated the new balance of power in Washington, where the Democrats control the house of representatives and can now meaningfully investigate Trump’s conduct and character.

AUSTRALIA’S BACKYARD

Marshall Islands: In Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, the signs of the rising seas are impossible to escape.

All flights land on a narrow runway, which, like everything else on this low-lying circular atoll, is enclosed by water. From the airport, the atoll’s lone roadway, Lagoon Road, leads clockwise to a small farming community where houses and fruit trees have been destroyed by the encroaching seas. Anticlockwise, the road leads to the main town and one of the grimmest places of all: the cemetery, where the rows of tombstones are gradually being washed away.

Now, the country has devised a plan to try to avoid extinction. It wants to raise the islands, possibly by reclaiming land and dredging sections of surrounding lagoons. Most of the territory on the atolls is flat and less than two metres above sea level.

In an interview last week, the Marshall Islands president, Hilda Heine, said she wants to develop a joint plan with other endangered nations to lift islands or build new ones.

“Raising our islands is a daunting task but one that must be done,” she told The Marshall Islands Journal.

The Pacific nation, one of the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, has long been a vocal backer of global efforts to cut carbon emissions. But, facing foreseeable devastation, Heine said the government is now looking to “adaptation” rather than mitigation.

“All Marshallese stakeholders, but especially traditional landowners, need to be at the forefront of this discussion,” Heine said. “This is about our survival as a nation, as a people and as a culture.”

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Venezuela: To survive, most Venezuelans depend today on a state-subsidised box of rations that contains rice, pasta, cooking oil, powdered milk and canned tuna. It is also stamped with the faces of the president, Nicolás Maduro, and his predecessor Hugo Chávez.

For the past two weeks, the United States, which leads a growing international push to remove Maduro, has been trying to dispatch competing supplies of aid. Tonnes of food and medicine were sent to Colombia and Brazil, near the Venezuelan border. These were stamped with the insignia of USAID.

Maduro blocked the aid, saying it was designed to undermine him and insisting that Venezuelans were not “beggars”. At the weekend, security and paramilitary forces opened fire on demonstrators near the Brazilian border, killing four people and injuring hundreds. In recent days, tensions have worsened.

The opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, who has been recognised as interim president by about 50 nations, backed the US aid convoys and said this week that “we should keep all options open”. This has raised fears of a US military intervention, which could lead to a civil war that would further impede the repair of the nation.

Maduro accused Donald Trump of trying to fabricate a crisis to invade, saying the US “wants Venezuela’s oil”. It does, but this does not make Maduro’s ruinous rule less reprehensible.

The US plans to send further aid and impose additional sanctions on Venezuela. This will make it harder for Maduro to dispatch his food boxes and could increase the pressure on him to negotiate a compromise. In the short term, at least, it will also add to the national misery.

SPOTLIGHT: ‘ISIS BRIDES’

Daesh’s final holdouts have almost all been defeated, leaving countries such as the US and Britain with a fresh challenge: whether to allow the so-called “ISIS brides” to return to their homes.

A debate about the citizenship of women who went to support the self-proclaimed caliphate followed the re-emergence of Shamima Begum in a Syrian refugee camp. In 2015, Begum left London for Syria with two schoolfriends. She married a 27-year-old Dutch convert 10 days later, lost two children to malnutrition, and fled a Daesh enclave several weeks ago because she was about to have another baby. Britain’s Home Office has revoked her citizenship and Bangladesh denied she was a citizen despite her Bangladeshi heritage.

The British response seemed to defy Trump’s recent call for European nations to take back at least 800 fighters who otherwise might be released and could cause further havoc. But Trump soon faced the case of Hoda Muthana, who left Alabama for Syria at age 19 in 2014. Muthana married an Australian and then a Tunisian, who were both killed, and then a Syrian. Washington now denies she is a citizen, saying she was born in the US while her father was there as a Yemeni diplomat. Yet she travelled to Syria on a US passport.

Neither of these expatriates has done much to attract public sympathy. Begum told The Times that seeing her first severed head in a bin “didn’t faze me at all”. Muthana tried to recruit for Daesh, calling on Twitter for her fellow Americans to attack Barack Obama or rent trucks to drive through parades and kill as many people as possible.

Yet there is another approach to dealing with those who joined Daesh: bring them home and, if necessary, charge them with any applicable offences. This will prevent them from posing further danger and will address concerns about needing to deter future foreign fighters. And it will preserve the rule of law and the integrity of the systems they were trying to fight against.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 2, 2019 as "Making nuclear summits great again". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.