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International Relations

'Rational' North Korea won't launch war: Singapore diplomat

Trump-Kim summit seen as first step toward longer-term peace talks

Kausikan credits President Trump with starting engagement with North Korea.

SINGAPORE -- Looming talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are unlikely to result in war, as both sides are acting rationally, and could pave the way for an eventual peace deal, Singapore's ambassador-at-large said.

"Deterrence has two parts," Bilahari Kausikan told Nikkei in a recent interview. "One is to show force," he said, such as by imposing tough sanctions. "You must also have engagement" to provide stability. By agreeing to meet with Kim in a summit expected by the end of May, Trump "has decided to start engagement at the highest level," taking "a strong position to re-establish deterrence," Kausikan said.

This represents "an improvement" over how North Korea was handled under Barack Obama, Trump's predecessor, who "did nothing for eight years" only to "then call doing nothing a policy of strategic patience," according to the ambassador.

The summit itself will not yield immediate results, Kausikan predicted. "Denuclearization won't happen, and I don't think many things would be settled."

Singapore Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan.

But the process of top-level diplomacy has at least begun. "It will take a long time. Then maybe eventually you can have some kind of deal," such as a freeze on further missile development in exchange for a peace treaty between Washington and Pyongyang, the ambassador said.

Based on his own visit to the North in the 2000s, Kausikan called the reclusive country "quite a stable, rational state." The U.S., for its part, is well aware that a pre-emptive strike on the North would lose it the trust of allies such as Japan and South Korea, making both sides unlikely to go to war, he said.

"To me, nuclear risk may be higher in South Asia than in Northeast Asia," the ambassador said.

Just as a Kim-Trump summit will not be the end of tensions between the North and the U.S., a meeting at the end of March between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping "should not be seen as a reconciliation between North Korea and China," Kausikan said.

Kim's visit and the summit are better understood as the North creating room to maneuver ahead of the meeting with Trump, according to Kausikan. "China knows that North Korea would get benefit from the meeting, but had no choice but to swallow it." To do otherwise would have exposed China's "secondary role in what Pyongyang clearly regards as primarily a U.S.-[North Korea] affair."

In terms of overall Asian diplomacy, the Trump administration's greatest weakness is that "Trump doesn't seem to see the connection between foreign defense and security policy and trade policy," according to the ambassador. "In East Asia, a big part of strategy must be trade."

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