Former North Korean military intelligence chief, Kim Yong Chol delivers letter to Donald Trump from Kim Jong-un as Mike Pompeo looks on outside the Oval Office, June 1, 2018. Olivier Douliery / Press Association. All rights reserved.
An unpredictable United States president could still turn everything on its head. But with days to go before Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are due to meet in Singapore, it looks probable that a chequered summit will actually go ahead. Preparations are now in overdrive, with senior United States officials working towards commencement on the resort island of Sentosa at 9am on 12 June.
Along the way, Trump’s people have carefully downgraded their initially inflated expectations, and now see the personal encounter as a mere getting-to-know-you session. But a political dividend is feasible, the White House thinks: a pledge to conclude a formal peace treaty on the Korean peninsula, thus upgrading the 1953 ceasefire which ended the Korean war. Trump could showcase this as a brilliant example of his deal-making skills, in the process justifying renewed talk of a Nobel peace prize. South Korea's government would welcome the outcome as a step towards real progress.
Even as the opportunities from Singapore are minimised, Trump’s team retains a bullish front. His champion Rudy Giuliani says that the president's earlier bold cancellation of the summit, after the release of a polemical message from the DPRK's vice-foreign minister Choe Son-hui, had forced Pyongyang into a humiliating climbdown. The implication is clearly that the North Korean leader, in seeking to engage with the great deal-maker himself, is completely out of his depth.
Perhaps so, but there is a different way of looking at things: namely, that North Korea might actually emerge as the real winner from Singapore, particularly if a formal peace declaration is its key outcome. After all, in the likely event that Washington-Pyongyang relations collapsed in the months following the summit, it would be far more difficult for the United States to demand tougher economic sanctions than already exist.
Indeed, what makes the whole process so remarkable is that the North Koreans seem to be ahead of the Americans in setting the agenda, even as they provoke the US with a series of crafty diplomatic moves. From Pyongyang’s perspective, the ultimate aim is twofold: a Kim-Trump meeting in the glare of maximum media coverage which confirms the promise of a peace treaty. Crucially, however, this treaty must do little or nothing to limit North Korea's nuclear programme – at least in the short term.
And the winner is…
As the Singapore meeting nears, with the mercurial Trump on one side of the table, there is a real prospect that all such intentions may fall apart. Indeed, Pyongyang may already be preparing for this eventuality too. Consider the following sequence:
* Kim Jong-un visits China's president, Xi Jinping, in the Chinese city of Dalian on 7-8 May, ensuring that the PRC is still onside in whatever is to come
* If the DPRK-China exchange may be expected, the sequel is not: the North Koreans invite Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to meet Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, where on 31 May they schedule a Kim-Putin summit in Moscow in the near future. Washington objects but does little more
* The DPRK regime invites President Assad of Syria to visit Pyongyang and meet Kim Jong-un.
This last is a real in-your-face move, whose longer-term context is truly significant. Since the 1990s, a particularly useful element of North Korea's foreign relations is its arms-export programme, including a variety of surface-to-surface ballistic missiles. This has both earned much-needed foreign exchange and made the DPRK a valued source of military equipment, especially in the Middle East.
In general these exports have not included substantial nuclear weapons-related items. But there is one notable exception: North Korean specialists' construction of a nuclear reactor in Syria, starting in 2002. Although not large, the reactor was of a type especially suited to generating plutonium for a potential nuclear-weapons programme.
Bashar al-Assad had inherited power in June 2000 from his father Hafez-al-Assad. The package included Syrian hegemony in Lebanon, but also fear of Israel’s nuclear capability. In response to the latter, Damascus had carved a deterrent in the form of a chemical-weapons force and missile-delivery vehicles. These, however, hardly compared with Israel’s long-time nuclear arsenal, which is precisely what made the North Korean connection so valued.
The reactor was close to completion in 2007, only to be destroyed by the Israeli airforce. Four years later, another son would assume power following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il. Now, in this newly dangerous geopolitical moment, Kim Jong-un's invitation to Bashar al-Assad sends Pyongyang's friends and enemies alike a clear message: that it can provoke the United States and get away with it.
Perhaps Mr Trump’s vaunted deal-making skills will spring a surprise and the North Koreans will capitulate. But don’t be too sure.