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Jakarta Post

Trump’s Korea mission parallels Habibie’s East Timor plan

  • Kornelius Purba

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, July 3, 2019   /   09:18 am
Trump’s Korea mission parallels Habibie’s East Timor plan US President Donald Trump (R) and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un hold a meeting during the second US-North Korea summit at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi on February 28, 2019. (AFP/Saul Loeb)

“I will prove to the world that I can make a major contribution to world peace as mandated by our Constitution,” a senior government official quoted former president BJ Habibie as saying, when he told a Cabinet meeting of his dramatic decision in 1999 to let the East Timorese people hold an independence referendum. Indonesia had invaded the territory in 1976, but the United Nations never recognized the occupation.

Some of you may deem it an exaggeration to compare United States President Donald Trump’s ambition to hammer out a historic nuclear settlement on the Korean Peninsula with Habibie’s determination 20 years ago. What is obvious in the cases of Trump and Habibie is that personal ambition played a very significant role in the two men’s peace initiatives. The question is whether Trump can persuade Kim to march to the beat of his drum.

In the Feb. 16, 1999 edition of The Jakarta Post, I wrote that Habibie wanted to be remembered by later generations for his historic decision. He became Indonesia’s third president on May 21, 1998, replacing his mentor Soeharto, who stepped down after ruling the country for 32 years. The historic change of guard came after mass rallies and riots and amid a debilitating financial crisis.

The country was scheduled to hold its first democratic election in 1999. Habibie realized he stood a slim chance of winning. He reportedly hoped that a permanent solution to the East Timor issue, which caused humiliation to Indonesia internationally, could provide a second wind to his election bid.

“It will like a snowball, and no one can stop it,” Habibie told his aides. He was right, the majority of East Timorese voted for independence in the Aug. 30, 1999 referendum. An independent nation, Timor Leste was established on May 20, 2002. But the freedom was at the cost of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, as Indonesia could not control those who could not accept the defeat, including military personnel and pro-Indonesia militias.

On Sunday Trump became his country’s first sitting president to set foot on North Korea’s soil. On the historic day he held his third bilateral talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the world’s last Cold War frontier, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Trump gave an unimaginable gift to Kim: an invitation to visit the White House “anytime he wants to do it”.

It seems now Trumps is less demanding over his long-standing prerequisite, that only after the North totally abandons its nuclear program will Washington ask the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to lift the total economic embargo against Pyongyang. Kim agreed to stop and even destroy his nuclear program, but it should be in line with a gradual easing of the severe economic sanctions. Trump’s inner circle, including his advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are actually against their boss’ decision.

Following his business intuition, Trump, formerly a property tycoon, calculated the profits he could reap from the Korean nuclear crisis.

First, Trump remains ambitious about winning the Nobel Peace Prize this year and has made several maneuvers to win the hearts of the Nobel Committee members. Upon Trump’s request, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a five-page “beautiful” letter to the Nobel Committee in Oslo, promoting Trump as candidate for this year’s prize.

Trump is not ashamed to acknowledge it, although Abe has refused to comment. “Many other people feel that way, too,” news agencies quoted Trump as telling reporters about the “beautiful” letter. Trump reportedly envies his predecessor Barack Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. Trump insists that he is much better and smarter than Obama.

Second, the tremendous progress of peace on the Korean Peninsula, which Trump believes can be easily achieved through his personal charisma, will boost his chance of winning reelection next year — easily.

Third, Trump also wants to show Iranian leaders that it is only he who can end the nuclear crisis and therefore they should follow Kim’s path if they want the harsh economic sanctions against the Islamic republic to be removed. The Iranian nuclear issue, however, is much more complicated than that of North Korea, but the problem is that Trump apparently does not care about this.

Trump and Kim first met in Singapore on June 12 last year, followed up by their second encounter in Hanoi on Feb. 27 to 28 this year. No substantial progress in relation to the nuclear talks has been achieved in their historic tête-à-tête meetings. But strangely their chemistry is getting stronger.

For one, however, the peace talks, initiated by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, are an incredible achievement, although the target is now shifting to deeper personal relations and trust building between Trump and Kim, as well as between Kim and Moon.

Within just one year, the tension on the Korean Peninsula has changed dramatically as many unimaginable events unlike normal diplomatic practices have taken place.

Habibie failed to realize his bid for presidency although he paved East Timor’s way for liberation. Let’s see if Trump achieves his Nobel dream and his reelection ambition.