Since Egypt's President Anwar Sadat shook hands with declared enemy country Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin under the appreciating eyes of US President Jimmy Carter on the manicured lawns of Camp David more than four decades ago, no other handshake at that political level has drawn as much global attention as the one between North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump in the serenity of Singapore's Sentosa Island this Tuesday.
Not since the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late 1980s has a political event created the potential for a tectonic shift in global politics than what one saw and heard immediately following this historic on-again, off-again, on-again summit. In the words of Donald Trump himself, it looked “like a fantasy, like a science fiction move.” It indeed was. Even Fox News ran out of language to describe its elation from the event, having thought not too long ago that this was like taking the proverbial holy water to the devil and venomously castigating President Barack Obama for even thinking about it.
While it is far too early to make too many mid- and long-term projections on the outcome of the Singapore summit, the optics, body language and the words spoken by both men, and indeed the fact that they signed an agreed document of intent, portend well for the future if taken on their face value alone. Large doses of mutual praise, candour and promises for change give rise for optimism, even if a cautious one.
Coming into the summit, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, and the countries the two represent, could not have been more poles apart from each other in every sense of the term, except perhaps in their unpredictable leaders. Unlike the open and democratic United States, North Korea, officially called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, represents a reclusive and closed society where political leadership has been hereditary and where international allegations of human rights violations have been a common thread.
For both President Trump and Kim Jong-un the keyword surrounding the summit was de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, albeit with diverse perspectives. For the US, it means reduction, if not even elimination, of North Korea's nuclear weaponry, while Pyongyang's undeclared definition of the word has been one that includes what happens militarily in the south of its border where a large presence of the US military has been consistently described by the north as a major threat to its national security. Finding common ground here will be a major challenge going forward.
Not surprising therefore that President Trump wisely chose to describe the summit and its outcome before heading for Singapore as a “process” rather than an all or nothing event. Going from threatening to decimate North Korea and calling its leader “rocket man” to addressing him as “Excellency”, and a “talented” one at that, was perhaps a learning curve for someone who this time matched pragmatism with instinct. Having staked so much, the real work for his administration begins now.
While credit must be given to President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un for doing what seemed impossible only a few months ago, the role of South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the whole buildup to it cannot be overemphasised. He was the catalyst.
Being a trusted long-term ally of the United States while living next door to a belligerent neighbour looking to acquire nuclear arms is not an enviable position to be in. But he did what he thought was the right thing to do—not just for his country but for peace and stability in the region and beyond. His perseverance has paid off. The role of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also deserves proper mention. His shuttling between Washington and Pyongyang showed serious intent that was clearly not always in sync with many of Trump's key people.
For Chairman Kim Jong-un the biggest take from Singapore was that he has succeeded to take his reclusive country to the global centre stage, at least for now, and he did so with a proper mix of craft and composure. Meeting with a sitting US president is in itself the ultimate recognition and a diplomatic triumph that is not common to his country. His comment at the summit that “the world will see a difference” was a loaded one and its meaning cannot be lost on observers and analysts.
While visiting Pyongyang on an official trip in 1987, I managed to talk to a young Korean student. He spoke English well and for his age he was articulate. He said his dream was to become a doctor. He also said that the war with the “enemy” US was not over and he hoped to fight that war someday. Three decades on, he may have achieved his professional dream but his hope to fight the war with the “enemy” may now remain unfulfilled. Perhaps his country, and the world, would be better off for that.
A rerun of the highly acclaimed TV series MASH, that was severely cynical of the Korean War of the '50s, may now be in order, with Sentosa providing the background.
Shamsher M. Chowdhury, BB is a former foreign secretary of Bangladesh and a commentator on global affairs.