The Capella Hotel, the venue for the summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, on Singapore’s resort island of Sentosa is not far from the big ‘Merlion’ statue of the island. This mythical creature has a lion’s head and the body of a fish, and is the mythical mascot of the country. And ironically the historical summit also looked mythical to many in terms of its prospects.
North Korea repeatedly threatened to cancel the summit, and Trump even called it off about two and half weeks ago citing Pyongyang’s “open hostility”. However, the commemorative coin minted by Washington, shows gold embossed images of Trump and Kim facing each other with a montage of their countries’ flags in the background.
It’s not more than a few months ago that the two leaders insulted each other with descriptions such as “little rocket man” and “dotard”. So, it was itself spectacularly magical that they shook hands and sat across the negotiating table amidst such ‘fire and fury’. Xi Jinping might have had a huge role to play.
Trump also knew that Xi had a “big impact” in the changed scenario. Don’t forget that Kim made a train journey to Beijing in end-March for his very first foreign visit as the supreme leader of North Korea. About 90 per cent of North Korea’s foreign trade is with China; so Xi is much more important than Trump or anybody else for them.
The Trump-Kim summit was not more than the tip of an iceberg of the much-required peace process. Kim knew this well. So did Trump. Despite Trump referring to Kim ‘very honorable’ and ‘very open’ on the eve of the proposed summit, is it possible for the US to believe North Korea? Can Trump forget that George Bush considered North Korea under Kim Jong-il a part of the so-called ‘Axis of Evil’ in 2002?
Now that “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”, it could be the best news of the decade. But, how easy is that? Libya agreed for denuclearization in 2003, and that’s why it was easy for the US to change the Gaddafi regime in 2011. Kim knows that well.
Apparently the US could dislodge Saddam Hussain only because Iraq did not have nuclear weapon. So, before complete denuclearization, it is natural for Kim to think a hundred times and spend lots of sleepless nights. It might need much more time and assurances. That Trump could scrap the Iran nuclear deal and came to Singapore after the G7 controversy ensures that Kim’s call will never be easy.
For North Korea, complete denuclearization is inseparable from the withdrawal of US troops from neighbouring South Korea and Japan, which will never be easy for the US to agree on. How will Tokyo be comfortable? How safe will Seoul feel if the 28,500 US troops stationed in that country are withdrawn? Don’t forget that there was a summit between the two Koreas in 2007, and a also six-nation summit took place in 2008.
But, Pyongyang had a missile test just a few weeks later, in early 2009. Even if Pyongyang agrees to abandon its nuclear missile programme completely, it will be very difficult to verify. In any case, North Korea has already conducted six nuclear tests. So, they have enough ‘data’ for their scientists to play with all kinds of ‘simulation’ exercises on their computers. They really might not need to be any more ‘tests’ at the moment, and Kim could start his endeavour to become a world leader.
What is the real take from Singapore apart from the good photo op? Well, the joint declaration is more than the ‘best’ the world could have expected, even if it might very well be a ‘promise’ to ‘promise’. Economic sanctions from Pyongyang might be lifted, at least in part. Some economic aid might boost the poor country considerably. However, many doubt the feasibility of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.
In that case, Kim is all set to come out as one of the few world leaders having nuclear strength. And Donald Trump’s dream of getting a Nobel Peace Prize might come to reality towards the end of the year, provided the Nobel committee ignores his scrapping the Iran deal unilaterally. That’s a prize Trump desperately needs to glorify his legacy, and to match Obama also.
And, who knows, Kim might have a possibility to share the prize with Trump. However, for restoring peace, the prospect of the ‘on-again off-again on-again’ Singapore summit is mysterious, just like the Merlion of Singapore.
Is this Trump-Kim summit enough for complete denuclearization in the Korean peninsula and restoring peace in north-east Asia?
Do we need a round table meeting of at least these six leaders – Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping, Moon Jae-in, Shinzo Abe and António Guterres– to achieve peace? Who knows, Xi might be a more important player in this game of balance than Trump. Don’t forget that, after the Kim-Moon summit at Panmunjom, Kim again travelled to Dalian during May 7-8 to meet Xi.
For now, the commemorative coin for the Singapore summit might be the best take for history.
The writer is Professor, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.