Modern Political Shibboleths

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When Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union as a “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” in an October 1939 radio broadcast, the British prime minister might as well have been describing the future state of Israel. Outwardly European in many ways, the tiny Jewish state remains far closer socio-culturally to its Middle Eastern neighbours much like it plays football in Europe while sitting in Asia. Officially, Israel is a secular state although with interesting caveats that explicitly emphasise its Jewish identity. Similarly, the Jewish State is a democracy but more so for its Jewish citizens than others.

It is not as if these contradictions of the Middle East’s only functional democracy are new or were just noticed. Several factors contribute to the recent focus on the apparent weaknesses of the Israeli polity: the receding of the immediate, existential threats faced by the new state; the removal from power of the founding generation of socialist Zionists; and the growth of a segment of Israeli society that is more traditional and religious. An external source of alarm has been the Jewish Diaspora, particularly in America, whose numbers and financial contributions to community causes gives them a loud voice, that have felt increasingly alienated from the Jewish homeland as a result of its policies.

There is, however, no need to panic just yet unless, of course, we are hidebound by doctrinaire definitions of ideas. Israel’s intriguing strains of democracy, secularism, and identity are indeed correlative to the country’s history and socio-political circumstances but are not as unique as they are sometimes portrayed to be. In fact, Israeli politics falls well within the normal behavioural parameters of nations and states that are presently unfashionable thanks only to the vicissitudes of public politics.

Let us take the example of secularism in Israel. Although the state recognises Islam, the Druze, and Bahá’í as well as ten sects of Christianity apart from Judaism. Nonetheless, a menorah has the pride of place on the country’s sigil and the weekend falls on the Sabbath; government buildings are decorated for Hanukkah and the national anthem, the Hatikvah, is replete with Jewish motifs; public institutions such as El Al, the national airline, and the Israeli Defence Forces observe kashrut, and Hebrew, the language of Jewish scripture and the bearer of its culture, is the national language.

In essence, Israel is as secular as any liberal democracy. Whether it is France, the United States, or some other example, even liberal democracies cleave fiercely to their heritage, which, for historical reasons, has seen religion in a paramount position. Where Israel goes beyond other secular democracies is in its policing of the boundaries between religions. For example, the state allows Jews from anywhere in the world to return to the Holy Land and obtain citizenship without question. This, however, is not entirely remarkable because dozens of countries offer jus sanguinus citizenship and have leges sanguinus; Israel is not unique in this respect even though the ethnocentricism may be politically offensive to some.

Israel also officially recognises only Orthodox Judaism, and marriage, divorce, and inheritance is based on halakha. Marriage between the different denominations of Judaism are not recognised, nor are inter-faith marriages with Jews. However, the state accepts any marriage that occurs outside Israel’s borders and it is estimated that some 10 percent of marrying couples travel abroad, usually to Cyprus, for their big day.

These policies have come under fire from secular activists for fostering a strong presence of religion in Israeli public life and for being at odds with democratic principles. The Diaspora, a large portion of whom are Reform or Conservative, are also incensed with their official status in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate that considers them as sufficiently Jewish to make aliyah but not for religious purposes. The Knesset’s purpose for having such laws, however, is to maintain the Jewish character of the Israeli state the value of which is often forgotten in debates over abstract notions.

It is easy to overlook the necessity of a Jewish state, especially as outsiders. The world of academic discourse and international politics, albeit using a vocabulary of liberal pluralism, still bears a strong majoritarian accent of European historical experience. Israel is the only Jewish state in the world, and as such, must bear the responsibility of preserving its ancient culture. Christian and Muslim states have the luxury of flirting with various social movements and ideologies and the sheer number of their sovereignties, not to mention the faithful masses, ensures that there remains a traditional core or anchor. On the other hand, Jews are more susceptible to attenuation through inter-faith marriage, conversion out of the fold, or atheism – a problem compounded by the fact that Judaism has stringent procedures for those who wish to embrace it.

Another necessity of a Jewish state is that there must always be a place that can serve as a safe haven for international Jewry. The fact remains that anti-Semitism still thrives the world over if with a little more discretion, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. On the brighter end of the spectrum, Emancipation removed any lingering doubts that Europe was first and foremost a Christian realm and Jews would perennially remain die Ewigen. The uglier face of the same phenomenon is the Shoah during World War II. It becomes incumbent upon Israel, as the world’s lone Jewish state, to defend that identity of its tribes that have made them such targets.

Israeli democracy can serve no role that is different from its secularism – it must be as inclusive and equitable as possible without in any way endangering the core identity upon which the state itself was demanded and built. Israel extends universal adult suffrage to all its citizens and does not bar any profession to certain faiths or ethnicities. There are non-Jewish members in the Knesset, the civil service, and even the military. Activists do, however, point to the discrimination in building permits and resource allocation between Jewish and Arab citizens. From the Israeli perspective, however, this has to do with retaining demographic control over the holy city of Jerusalem (and other religious sites in Judea and Samaria) and falls under the broad rubric of preserving the national heritage. Besides, Arabs had denied Jews access to their religious sites when the area was occupied by Muslims.

As abstractions, democracy and secularism are laudable principles perhaps. Yet the reality of Israeli circumstances demand that they serve only as beacons rather than absolute mandates. Much is made of Israel as an innovative country of startups and the technologically gifted. As true as that may be, the country also serves as an example for innovation in counter-terrorism, legal frameworks, and social policy to countries that do not enjoy the luxury of nearly monolithic cultures and live under constant threat.

By carping about the ostensible failures of Israeli democracy and secularism, critics appear devoted to how we might best serve these ideas rather than the more important question of how these ideas may best serve society. The Western one-size-fits-all model of development – be it material or social – clearly does not hold. Interestingly, the flow of immigrants from cultures that are substantially different from European and American societies has resulted in similar fissures in the West and has led to several leaders (David Cameron, Angela Merkel, and Nicolas Sarkozy) announcing the death of multiculturalism. It is worth bearing in mind that Israel, on the other hand, has lived with these fissiparous tendencies since its inception.

As Israel celebrates its 70th year of existence, it is time to reflect on the trials and tribulations the tiny state has undergone in that period. Only the local context will inform us whether the Jewish state has succeeded in living up to its promise, not hoary theories of political systems.

The Death of Civilisation

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Darkening AgeNixey, Catherine. The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. Basingstoke: Macmillan Publishers, 2017. 352 pp.

“The destroyers came from out of the desert. Palmyra’s Temple of Athena must have been expecting them: for years, marauding bands of bearded, black-robed zealots…had been terrorising the region. Their attacks were primitive, thuggish, and very effective.” Utter destruction followed in their wake. “Great stone columns that had stood for centuries collapsed in an afternoon; statues that had stood for half a millennium had their faces mutilated in a moment; temples that had seen the rise of the Roman Empire fell in a single day. This was violent work, but it was by no means solemn. The zealots roared with laughter as they smashed the ‘evil, ‘idolatrous’ statues; the faithful jeered as they tore down temples, stripped roofs and defaced tombs. Chants appeared, immortalizing these glorious moments.”

“When the men entered the temple they took a weapon and smashed the back of Athena’s head with a single blow so hard that it decapitated the goddess. The head fell to the floor, slicing off that nose, crushing the once-smooth cheeks. Athena’s eyes, untouched, looked out over a now-disfigured face. Mere decapitation wasn’t enough. More blows fell, scalping Athena, striking the helmet from the goddess’s head, smashing it into pieces. Further blows followed. The statue fell from its pedestal, then the arms and shoulders were chopped off. The body was left on its front in the dirt; the nearby altar was sliced off just above its base… On the floor, the head of Athena slowly started to be covered by the sands of the Syrian desert.”

You might be thinking that I am describing ISIS’ destruction of classical era structures in Syria in February 2017 but you would be mistaken. This was the destruction wrought by Christians in circa 385. For over half a millennium since the Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and the Edict of Milan in 312, Christianity aggressively destroyed all signs of paganism as it spread across Europe. Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World does not quite chronicle the tragedy – that would be too long a book – but gives an excellent glimpse into the tumultuous years of Late Antiquity and the savage birth of Christian Europe.

The Darkening Age jumps back and forth as it weaves its narrative – with each chapter and theme, the historical era is begun afresh. After a historical overview of Late Antiquity, Nixey elaborates on the brutal influence of Christianity on the law, the fine arts, and religion. In doing so, she dispels several powerful myths in the Christian tradition that have survived for centuries and are now cemented in the mainstream historical memory. In doing so, the reputations of several Church leaders are severely tarnished – by 21st century sensitivities, we might call them terrorists and mass murderers. Yet Nixey is too good a scholar to allow such crude, ahistorical judgments to creep in. Instead, she lets the values and mores of the era serve as a template and allows contemporaries of these Christian saints and martyrs evaluate their vandalism and philosophy – or lack thereof.

The rise of Christianity spelled not just the death of pluralism and tolerance around the Mediterranean but also a fundamental reworking of epistemic categories. Before the ascendance of Christianity, despite the long presence of Judaism, few people considered religion to be a marker of identity. The fluidity of primary religions maintained an easy permeability between the various sects and the state did not care to interfere as long as these cults did not upset the law and order. It was Christianity that introduced a rigidity that plagues the world to this day – Christians were correct, and others were not just wrong but sick, insane, evil, damned, disgusting, and inferior.

The new cult observed its difference aggressively: in a letter to one of his faithful, Augustine advised the man that even if a Christian is starving and on the point of death, food that had been contaminated by pagan sacrifice was to be rejected with fortitude. In a pattern that is now all too familiar to those who have observed the effects of exclusivist monotheism on societies, Christians first held themselves apart and then assaulted others.

For a faction with a humble founder, Christians saw themselves as soldiers in an army (of Christ) and applied the word “pagan” – which had originally meant civilian – to the pluralistic religions of the region. To these militants, allowing someone to remain outside the Christian faith was not to show tolerance but to damn them. As Augustine railed, to allow someone to continue in an alternative form of worship or a heretical form of Christianity was not to allow religious freedom; it was to allow Satan to thrive.

Constantine saw the sign of the cross in October 312, and his soldiers, their shields painted with Chi-Ro, defeated Maxentius shortly. One of the new emperor’s first edicts was to give Christianity official recognition as equal to the faiths of Rome. It would prove to be a tipping point in world history: in less than a century, Christianity would ruthlessly root out Rome’s indigenous religions and destroy its temples, libraries, and customs. Before Constantine had come to power, Rome had 28 public libraries and many private ones; by the end of the 4th century, there were none.

In 325, a law was passed to restrict the “pollutions of idolatry” and December 25, until then celebrated the birth of the Mesopotamian god of shepherds, Dumuzid, became the birthday of Jesus. Similarly, other pagan rituals and festivals were either banned or usurped. In 341, Constantine’s son, Constantius, banned sacrifices; by 356, it had become illegal – on pain of death – to worship images. A law passed in 388 forbade any discussion of religion in public, and in 399, pagan temples were all ordered to be torn down.

A law in 407 banned the old merry ceremonies and in 529, the year the Academy finally closed its doors, the Christian State decreed that “every single person in the empire who had not yet been baptized now had to come forward immediately, go to the holy churches and ‘entirely abandon the former error [and] receive saving baptism’. ‘We forbid the teaching of any doctrine by those who labour under the insanity of paganism’ so that they might not ‘corrupt the souls of their disciples.’”

Although it was Constantine himself who first and publicly moved against the pagan temples, it was not just the new Christian state that perpetrated this cultural genocide – Christian mobs went about in an orgy of vandalism. Moreover, the men leading these campaigns of violence were not the over-zealous fringe elements of a new faith. St Benedict, St Martin, St John Chrysostom, St Marcellus – these were figures at the very heart of the Church.

The statues in the public parks and temples were the first to go; the beautiful statue of Athena at the Acropolis, for example, was mutilated, beheaded, and finally placed face down in the courtyard to be trampled upon by Christians for eternity. It was clearly not enough to pull down a statue: the tradition it represented had to be humiliated, disgraced, and tortured. The destruction did not stop at public property. Christian mobs began to enter houses to remove any signs of pagan culture from them which, when found, would be publicly burned. As Nixey insightfully comments, today, the destruction of Michelangelo’s Pietà would be considered a terrible act of cultural vandalism – but it wouldn’t be sacrilege because Christians do not hold the statue to be sacred. Statues in pagan temples, on the other hand, were.

It is not that there were no contemporary critiques of Christianity, and many modern ones echo the same objections. Have the rules of an allegedly omniscient god changed over time? many wondered. If so, then who is wrong – Moses or Jesus? Or when the Father sent Jesus, had he forgotten what commands he gave to Moses? Celsus, for example, found the new cult stupid, pernicious and vulgar; he worried that it would spread and bring ruin to Rome. Pliny the Elder described Christianity as nothing more than a “degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.” What the philosophers could not understand is how anyone could revel in their own ignorance. “Wisdom in this life is evil, but foolishness is good,” taught Corinthians. Critics’ arguments were usually replied with clubs, quietly at first and then more boldly after Constantine.

Priests were frequently attacked and beaten. Christians took to throwing a concoction of caustic lime powder and vinegar – the earliest acid attacks – into the eyes of unsuspecting prominent pagans in the marketplace, thereby blinding them. Judges who dared to uphold the law against Christians were also beaten and killed. So severe was the Christian reign of terror that even the very Christian emperor, Theodosius, had to quietly admit that his monks commit many crimes. The Church, however, defended these acts, comparing them to a gangrene that had to be cut away or cauterised, advising people to turn a deaf ear, like surgeons, to the cries, out of compassion.

People watched in stunned inaction as the culture which they had followed for over a thousand years was dismantled. The Empire suffered far more at the hands of Christians than it did in all the waves of barbarian invasions. Libraries closed, books were severely censored or burned, and the entire edifice of academia was suspect. As Tertullian was fond of saying, What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”” implying that Christians did not need philosophy because they had God. Philosophy went from having different schools of thought to having the wrong view and the correct, Christian view.

Literature suffered similarly – works that praised the old gods or were considered too prurient were destroyed. What little survived was because the iota of civilisation in some of the Church leaders won out and a few works were imaginatively reinterpreted in service of Christ rather than burned. Even then, translations were deliberately timid and their authority accrued the weight of the ages – some poems had to wait until the late 20th century to be accurately translated! It has been estimated that less than ten per cent of all classical literature has survived into the modern era. For Latin, the figure is even worse: it is estimated that only one hundredth of all Latin literature remains.

In an attempt to divert attention from their own crimes and justify their actions, Christians have also claimed victimhood at the hands of Romans. Nixey demolishes these claims, arguing that of the three waves of repression in which Christians found themselves caught, not one was directed exclusively at Christians. “we know of no government-led persecution for the first 250 years of Christianity,” Nixey claims. “There were simply not that many years of imperially ordered persecution in the Roman Empire. Fewer than thirteen – in three whole centuries of Roman rule.” Furthermore, The Darkening Age delves into contemporary sources to argue that Rome’s only problem with Christianity was one of law and order. Many of the Christians who found themselves afoul of the law were actively seeking martyrdom rather than being oppressed for their faith.

Again reminiscent of jihadists, tempting celestial terms were offered to martyrs: scripture was supposed to have promised them “multiplication, even to a hundred times, of brothers, children, parents, land and homes.” The emperor Trajan explicitly ordered, conquirendi non sunt – these people must not be hunted out. When Emperor Julian refused to execute Christians for their crimes, he was begrudged by the Church for denying Christian ‘combatants’ martyrdom! Even Origen had to admit, the numbers of martyrs were few enough to be easily countable and Christians had died for their faith only occasionally. George Bernard Shaw is said to have acidly observed over a millennium later, martyrdom is the only way a man can become famous without ability! As the author remarks, Rome clearly did not wish to exterminate Christianity; if it did, it would have succeeded without much effort.

Rome wanted obedience, not martyrs. Nixey cites several documents in which Romans are shown pleading with Christians to make just the token gesture to escape punishment. In one tale a Roman prefect named Probus asks the Christian on trial before him no fewer than nine times to even lie to escape execution; the prefect begs the Christian to think of his weeping family, to spare himself pain, to go free. Such grace and liberalism would never be on offer to pagans in Christian courts barely a century later.

Of particular importance in The Darkening Age is Nixey’s argument that the establishment of Christianity in all spheres of Western existence is so complete that Western views cannot help but be biased without even the realisation. For over a millennium and a half, theologians and scholars packaged and repackaged Christian values, smoothing its edges each time, that the Church could eventually speak in a secular accent. Silvio Ferrari, of the University of Milan, has argued that the modern secular state owes its origins to Christianity and is not culturally neutral but rather draws inspiration from Christian theology; Ferrari even warns against its transplantation to cultures with different intellectual development.

The whitewashing of Christianity’s cultural genocide is particularly noticeable in academia. Historians, for example, have recently discarded the term, ‘Dark Ages’ to describe the centuries immediately after the fall of Rome. They argue that there was much development going on if not necessarily of a grand nature. Christopher de Hamel has even gone on to suggest that under pressure from barbarian attack, Rome ‘saved its identity by reinventing itself as a Christian empire’! In what one only hopes was a misjudged sense of humour, the 1965 edition of The Penguin Dictionary of Saints remarks with amusement that Martin of Tours ‘was not averse to the forcible destruction of heathen shrines.’

As Nixey points out, modern histories rarely describe Christian acts violent, or vicious, or thuggish: they are merely zealous, pious, or enthusiastic. John Pollini, from the University of Southern California, agrees that “modern scholarship, influenced by a Judeo-Christian cultural bias has frequently overlooked or downplayed such attacks and even at times sought to present Christian desecration in a positive light.”

But these are not just 20th century sensitivities – one 19th century scholar defended the vicious censorship by Basil of Greek and Latin literature by passing it off as the “educational theory of a cultured man” rather than the “anxious admonition of a bigoted ecclesiastic.” Johannes Geffcken, another influential 19th century scholar, considered it absurd that the rise of Christianity and the destruction of paganism were related in any way. Chrysostom’s condemnation of the Jewish canon was eagerly reprinted by the Nazis.

Not only have Christian excesses been dismissed, many have not even made it into the history books. As Eusebius explained the role of history and historians, it was not to record everything but instead only those things that would do a Christian good to read. These views were then sustained by institutional support – until 1871 the University of Oxford required that all students were members of the Church of England, while in most cases to be given a fellowship in an Oxford college one had to be ordained.

The Darkening Age is not written in the typical turgid academic prose one is accustomed to from scholars, nor do its end notes run for almost as long as the manuscript itself (though the book is well-documented). In fact, there is the uncommon – and evocative – presence of a strand of emotion in the narrative. The purpose of writing this book, the author tells us, is to make more people aware of the history of early Christianity and the damage it wrought to the pagan world that came before it. Nixey makes a strange claim – that much of what transpired in the remaking of Europe in the Christian mould is not well known. At first glance, this comes as a surprise to any lover of the Classics, yet Nixey may well be correct in that the Classics have gone underappreciated or molested by critical theory since the postmodern turn. That is what makes The Darkening Age an even more important work.

It is not just lovers of the Classical World who might not be surprised by Nixey’s arguments: the author’s focus is on Europe when she claims that there are no true pagans left but there are plenty remaining in other parts of the world such as India. The experience of these pagans is not much different, though separated by over a dozen centuries, from those of their Roman brethren. Whenever it came up against a foreign culture, Christianity has found it disturbingly easy to tap into its reservoir of primordial fervour and zealotry to fight it. The Crusades and the Age of Imperialism are the most obvious examples of this but so is the post-Enlightenment secular world order. Though beaten to it by others, some Christian armies did despoil Indian temples and architecture; moreover, rhetoric of conversion still rhymes with the angry frothing at the mouth of Marcellus or the early 5th century Alexandrian bishop Cyril (the one responsible for the murder of the famous mathematician Hypatia).

The Darkening Age is an informative book for those not well versed in the Classics but it is also a gentle goad to inquire epistemologically at the webs of meaning that bind us. It is this second order of thinking that makes this book invaluable to everyone, even those who could not care less for the city of marble that Agrippa left behind. The internet has made it easy to import ideas from one part of the globe to another but without context and a dab of reckless politics, it could be deeply destabilising and extend the cultural genocide begun circa Constantine. Nixey exposes secularism for a simulacrum though in all fairness, that was probably not her intent; regardless, the easiest way to know whom the simulacrum benefits is to challenge it.


July 05, 2018: An addendum as a result of discussions on Twitter.

Hope on the Korean Peninsula

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US President Donald Trump and North Korean supremo Kim Jong-un emerged from their summit meeting in Singapore with smiles and an understanding on the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear programme. After nearly five hours of talks, the two leaders released a joint statement that committed both countries to build a new relationship towards peace and prosperity, joint efforts to bring peace to the Korean peninsula, Pyongyang’s promise to work to achieve a complete denuclearisation of the two Koreas, and the repatriation of the remains of prisoners of war from the Korean War nearly 70 years ago. Interestingly, the joint statement also stated that Trump committed to provide a security guarantee to North Korea.

Trump emerged from the meeting stating that it went “better than expected and no one could’ve expected this” though the statement had no trace of the pre-summit US language of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation (CVID).” Both sides promised to begin follow-on negotiations between US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Ri Yong-ho at the earliest possible date.

Before the summit, most experts would have been glad if the conference even took place and the promise of a second meeting would have been taken as a great success. Trump’s ‘unique’ style of diplomacy had worried most observers that the Korean peninsula might be heading towards an expensive and catastrophic confrontation. Indeed, it was barely ten months ago that the president had threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” against Pyongyang. Seen against that backdrop, the Singapore summit delivered beyond expectations.

Nonetheless, optimism must be tempered and there are several questions the joint statement raises. The first and most obvious is that the joint statement is woefully short on details – there has been no agreement on what denuclearisation would entail, verification regimes, timetables, deadlines, or penalties. Still, the statement might be seen as a preliminary measure before a more concrete treaty is negotiated in much the same way the Joint Plan of Action paved the way for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran.

It may also be argued that Kim did not promise the United States anything more than he did South Korea in the Panmunjom Declaration that pledged to strive for a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War and bring about the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Yet Trump conceded the cessation of military exercises with South Korea – apparently without consulting the military or Seoul – and suggested the removal of all US forces from the country. The president thought such activity would be “very provocative” now that negotiations had begun with Pyongyang and that the cancellation of war games would also save “a tremendous amount of money.”

Kim’s promise of denuclearisation is also a big question mark. While it implies the dismantlement of his own nuclear arsenal – which is a notable achievement – it also opens the door to the removal of US nuclear weapons from the peninsula and perhaps even from bases nearby in Guam and Japan. North Korea does not intend to disarm unilaterally as it has learned its lesson from watching how the United States treated Iraq and Libya.

If Washington does talk over the heads of its regional allies in Seoul and Tokyo, both South Korea and Japan may be tempted to seriously consider acquiring a nuclear arsenal of their own. There have long been whispers in both capitals of an independent and reliable nuclear deterrent and these may only get louder if talks between Pyongyang and Washington drag on indefinitely without a North Korean nuclear disarmament.

It must be noted that the arrangement Trump has reached with Kim is far inferior to the agreement Clinton achieved in 1994 or even the progress made by the Six-Party Talks between 2003 and 2009. Yet this reflects not a shortcoming on Trump’s part but the advancements North Korea has made in its nuclear and missile programmes in the intervening years. American myopia in the late 1990s and early 2000s has given Kim Jong-un a better negotiating hand today through no fault of the Trump administration and the concessions Washington can expect will be less or will come at a steeper price, the difference from a quarter century ago echoing the cost of Washington’s folly.

The success of the Singapore summit and any subsequent agreement will ultimately depend upon whether each side delivers on their promises. Both sides have plenty of ammunition to suspect the other of bad faith. Washington, for example, walked out of its agreement with Iran despite the international community’s protestations for no apparent reason; the United States was found wanting also in the case of the Agreed Framework of 1994 that President Bill Clinton had negotiated with Kim Jong-il. The George W Bush administration remained unconvinced of the utility of diplomacy until North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. For its part, Pyongyang has played the role of the madman to perfection with scorching rhetoric and a series of defiant nuclear and missile tests. With so much bad blood between the two countries, it is difficult to ascertain at this juncture how the negotiations and implementation phase will develop.

The only way to confirm whatever nuclear promises North Korea makes would be through an intrusive monitoring and inspection system as the JCPOA had envisaged with Iran. This will be very complicated process in terms of voluntary disclosures and the freedom international inspectors will have to investigate in a controlled country like North Korea will always be suspect. Furthermore, if the International Atomic Energy Agency’s reports do not conform to intelligence estimates, will the international community press for even more intrusive inspections? A first step, experts suggest, is an open skies agreement that will allow the two Koreas to conduct aerial reconnaisance over each other’s territories and monitor from afar.

Some of Trump’s critics have decried the camaraderie shown to Kim – Trump had called Kim a very talented man for taking over the country from his father at just 26. This stands in sharp contrast to the US president’s reaction to Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau at the recently concluded G-7 meeting in La Malbaie. North Korea’s human rights record is also brought up to emphasise Trump’s gaucheness.

Pace Trump’s relationship with the leaders of America’s long-time allies, it is worth considering, however, if more would have been achieved by the United States had Trump been boorish to dictators and despots to satisfy the moral itch of a certain segment of commentators.

The key factor to comprehend at this juncture in the US-North Korea talks is what each side wants from the other. Washington’s objectives are clear – the elimination of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. As for North Korea’s aims, observers suggest that most of all, Kim seeks the recognition of the international community and the end to his country’s pariah status. An additional ambition of Pyongyang’s might be to improve the health of North Korea’s economy. Kim’s third aspiration might be the eventual reunification of the Koreas – an idea that carries a powerful cultural resonance on the peninsula despite the drifting apart of the two Koreas since World War II.

Each of these goals would profoundly change the geopolitics of East Asia. First and foremost, it would allow Pyongyang to get out from under China’s thumb. While Beijing has sheltered its tiny eastern neighbour for so long, there are indications that the relationship might not be as strong as it once was. A stronger and more independent Korea, or even just North Korea, might seek friends afar – dare I say Uncle Sam yet? – to balance powers nearby.

It is worth remembering that in their first summit in 2000, Kim Jong-il told his South Korean counterpart Kim Dae-jung that he had no objections to the continued presence of American troops on the peninsula even after reunification – “We are surrounded by big powers – Russia, Japan and China – so the United States must continue to stay for stability and peace in East Asia,” southern Kim remembers northern Kim as saying. South Korea’s present president, Moon Jae-in, seems cautiously ready to midwife this old and seemingly strange desire for better relations with the United States if it still exists – Moon met Kim in a historic visit in April this year and was the one who conveyed Kim’s wish to meet Trump.

Trump’s meeting with Kim holds great potential for shuffling the East Asian geopolitical deck. However, the hurdles are many too – primarily the mistrust built over the past 30 years since the end of the Cold War. The Singapore summit was a first step in a long journey towards reconciliation but as Ronald Reagan advised during the Soviet glasnost and perestroika, trust but verify; for now, the stringent economic sanctions on North Korea will remain.


This post appeared on FirstPost on June 13, 2018.