Kim-Trump in Kabuki dance: Khan and Modi in costly Tango | Sunday Observer

Kim-Trump in Kabuki dance: Khan and Modi in costly Tango

What does one think when two impoverished nuclear powers send their fighter-bombers at each other but aim to damage as little as possible even as they whip up their respective masses into frenzied nationalist jingoism? You would think that they do not want a war and are just faking it.

If one is in the immediate neighbourhood of a potential nuclear war, one is naturally thankful for this fakery, even if it came at the cost of expensive military aircraft, but one would still wonder (irritably) why this costly and traumatic military stunts at all? Why send bombers at each other, scaring whole populations, nay the whole region, while losing aircraft and almost losing highly trained pilots? Why then shell each other’s border areas scattering a few thousand peasantry in panic?

But living as we do in South Asia, we know why Pakistan and India simply cannot settle down and play cricket instead of playing at war and, thereby, not allowing us to concentrate on our cricket (or smart phones or gaming). As South Asians, embroiled as we are with the mess of embittered and suspicious ethnic communities, with some communities carved up into different nation-states, we know what it is like to live for decades trying to manage the mess – much of it due to the machinations of retreating colonial powers.

We may be thankful that the mess is not as severe as the socio-political-human trauma now in its seventieth year in divided and besieged Palestine, but we do realise that the people of Kashmir are also in their seventieth year of divided and suppressed communities just as much as the peoples of Nagaland and Mizoram and other east Indian states are also in their seventieth year of struggle for more autonomy and human communication with fellow tribals across foreign imposed state borders. And so are the southern Pashtuns and northern Uzbeks and other tribals in Afghanistan as they also struggle with decades of big power interference in their geopolitically important territory.


Meanwhile, in Hanoi, Vietnam, last week United States President Donald Trump met again (in barely eight months) with North Korean dictator (sorry, chum, I just don’t see you as a genuinely elected leader) Kim Jong Un and, as expected, did a lot of handshaking and shoulder patting and smiling and ….. nothing else.

“As expected”, “unsurprising” were the most common terms used by hardnosed analysts across the world commenting on the failure of the US-DPRK summit talks that ended early and without even a jointly signed statement of future steps. Typically, Western TV news anchors, including those in a disgruntled, anti-Trump American liberal news media, put on a brave face and pretended that their ostensible American hero, the “leader of the free world” (which ‘free world’??), has, at least, kept the diplomatic ball rolling, as it were, with apparently recalcitrant North Korea.

But despite the hype by the White House about “negotiations”, those carefully observing the lead-up to the Kim-Trump talks, including the very concerned leaders of neighbouring South Korea, Japan, China and Russia (Moscow shares a short border with Pyongyang in far eastern Siberia), saw little in the way of concrete preparation. True, last year’s ‘show’ summit in Singapore was also poorly prepared for and produced little of substance but at least it went as planned and produced a short, if ridiculously scrappy, joint statement.

The lead up to Hanoi, however, indicated little serious negotiations other than perhaps the scheduling and other logistics. Both Pyongyang and Washington never spelt out specific issues of focus in the negotiations as is normally done in protracted geopolitical dealings. Worse, the White House did not even consult its close regional military allies, South Korea and Japan before the summit. In fact, Seoul put out a strange statement just before the summit diplomatically implying that it would have dearly loved to have been kept informed by Washington before the Hanoi meeting. After all, it is the future of the Korean Peninsula and the possible re-unification of that divided nation that is the final objective of any negotiations.

In contrast, Chairman Kim had repeated talks with President Xi Jing Pin of China in the months after Singapore.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, after all, has over 90 per cent of its international trade with China and is also in military alliance with its giant neighbour ever since newly Communist China fully supported Pyongyang during the bitter 1951-53 Korean War that ended with only a shaky ceasefire and a massive US army stationed in South Korea ever since – ostensibly to protect an American ally but also to block any further spread of Communism at the time.

The old Capitalism-vs-Communism Cold War has long since ended with some Communist powers collapsing (Russia, eastern Europe) but others emerging as big powers and economic successes (China, Vietnam). But the American forces have remained in South Korea seemingly poised to unleash their might, including nuclear might, against puny North Korea for the past nearly seventy years. No wonder, then, that the DPRK has also remained on a highly militarised footing, although its economic footing remains off-balance and propped by Chinese and Russian aid.


As a Chinese expert commentator pointed out while monitoring the Hanoi debacle, for Pyongyang, it is primarily a matter of serous insecurity of having suffered a debilitating and territorially divisive war and then having to put up with the superpower who supported its rival in Seoul still remaining on its doorstep constantly making warlike preparations against it even as it struggles to recover from that war. Worse, that superpower, America, has also persistently squeezed North Korea with economic and political sanctions ever since the war, on the pretext of containing the DPRK’s military build-up. This was even as Washington maintained its own military forces next door and even annually carried out military invasion practices on Pyongyang’s doorstep.

To date, Washington and its allies seem only to talk about North Korean de-nuclearisation rather than the de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang, however, has always talked about peace and stability in the whole Peninsula - as does South Korea, China and Russia all of whom are geographically in the region and have a direct interest. Significantly, the only South Korean journalist who got a question in to Trump during the post-summit news conference in Hanoi also referred to “de-nuclearisation of the Peninsula” in her question to him which he crudely chose to misapprehend and answer vaguely.

Significantly, Trump seemingly ignored many Western journalists (including the American media) who raised their hands during the news conference on Thursday and, as some observers noted, actually gave the floor mostly to Asian journalists! Everyone knew why. He wanted to avoid embarrassing questions about the on-going testimony in the US Congress by his one-time lawyer-‘fixer’, Michael Cohen. Cohen is apparently frantically spilling the beans about Trump’s illegal and illicit doings in an effort to reduce his own sentencing for perjury and fraud and other crimes he has committed ostensibly to cover-up those same doings by his former employed, the current US President.

In fact a French commentator sarcastically observed that the summit was cut short mainly because Trump was continually distracted by the on-going drama in Washington that constantly affected his personal legitimacy as well as threatened his future electoral prospects. An American expert commentator (he seemed of Korean origin) remarked that what took place in Hanoi was a bit of Kabuki theatre – a traditional Japanese operatic dance-drama – with both Kim and Trump elaborately posturing and going round and round each other without actually engaging. In Kabuki, however, the actors do ritually move in a circle but do engage and take the narrative forward.

In South Asia, it seems that both India and Pakistan actually do not want any war but their leaders seem to be compelled to do their own war dancing to keep their respective popular nationalisms in ferment.

The Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Pakistan-based Islamist guerrilla group that claimed responsibility for the February 14th suicide bombing of Indian troops in Kashmir, seems to have deliberately timed their operation, the worst guerrilla strike on Indian-controlled Kashmir in decades, for this period in the lead up to the Indian Parliamentary elections.

New Delhi launched a reprisal air raid on Pakistan going beyond Pakistan-controlled Kashmir but seems to have carefully avoided causing any casualties and done little other damage. Since it was a deep intrusion into actual Pakistani territory the whole world tensed, until the emerging details indicated that it was a deliberate ‘feint’. Delhi’s official pronouncements also emphasised that the aerial attack avoided any military targets, indicating India was not interested in any further escalation.

It takes two to tango, and Islamabad did join in by making similarly soft statements. Pakistani jets made a responding sortie against India but Islamabad officials also emphasised that they were avoiding causing serious damage on Indian soil.

Both air forces lost one aircraft each and Pakistan quickly returned the Indian fighter pilot who had eject on to Pakistani territory when his plane was hit.

And even as both sides fired artillery at each other (causing villagers to flee), the world began to relax when it realised that the tango worked.