Trump-Kim summit: A historic moment made in Singapore

SINGAPORE - There are events in every nation's life that will remain etched in history.

In the second half of the 20th century, among those indelible moments for the United States would count the Kennedy assassination of 1963, astronaut Neil Armstrong's moon landing in 1969, President Richard Nixon's historic handshake with Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972 and, three years later, the dramatic evacuation by helicopter from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon that marked the humiliating end of the Vietnam War.

 

For the first half of this century, we already are looking at two watershed moments: The election in 2008 of Mr Barack Obama as the first black president of the US and today (June 12), the handshake witnessed between President Donald Trump and North Korea's Chairman Kim Jong Un at Capella Singapore hotel on Sentosa.

"We will have a terrific relationship," Mr Trump told Mr Kim as the Korean leader told him the road to the summit had not been easy.

Not surprisingly for a document crafted in such haste, the joint statement they signed appeared to be a broad brush one, short on specifics.

There was no road map mentioned for the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation the US had said it would insist upon. If anything, by mentioning Mr Kim’s “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”, it seemed to suggest that the North Korean formulation had been upheld.

Likewise, there was also little by way of detail for the security guarantees held out by the US or specific mention of the fate of Japanese abductees in the North-- a point of deep concern for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Awareness that all this needs close and careful negotiation over weeks, if not months, probably explains why the two leaders felt they could wrap up their talks in one morning. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a North Korean counterpart have been tasked to implement the accord “fully and expeditiously” and Mr Trump told the media that the process of denuclearisation would “begin very quickly”.

These issues aside, the summit nevertheless is a key turn in the road.

Made in Singapore, the summit meeting between two men who were sworn adversaries just a year ago was as authentic a moment for the tiny island as local swimmer Joseph Schooling's record-breaking gold medal win at the last Olympics. It is testament to the neutrality Singapore practises, the inclusive Asian architecture it demands, and its unique standing not just in the fairways of commerce but also in the flow of global conversation.

In the end, it was the personality of Mr Trump - a president who will not play by the rules set for him by institutional memory or codes of conduct - that made a breakthrough with Mr Kim possible for what probably will someday be labelled the Pivot to Pyongyang.

Sceptics of the Trump-Kim meetings have accused him of "mirror-imaging" - carrying a notion that he knows what would work with Mr Kim on a flawed notion that the North Korean leader is like Mr Trump himself, or the businessmen he has dealt with in a long career of deal-making.

 
 
 

To Mr Trump's credit, he pressed on, allowing his optimism to give peace a chance even as he couched it with warnings to Mr Kim that this could be "one-time shot" at seizing that opportunity.

It is said that opposites attract and in that way the two leaders who greeted each other this morning could not be more dissimilar.

One is tall, blond and two days short of turning 72. The other is short, squat, black-haired and less than half the age of the American leader. Mr Trump presides over a US$20 trillion economy. North Korea's gross domestic product, the sum of economic activity of its 27 million people, is smaller than Vermont's - which, with a population of a mere 650,000 or less, is the weakest contributor to the US GDP among the 50 states.

Yet, Mr Kim, who arrived in Singapore in an Air China Boeing 747 rather like Mr Trump's own Air Force One 747, pulled off the supremely audacious feat of being treated as an equal to the world's most powerful leader, a man who was made a four-star general in his 20s by his doting father sitting across the commander-in-chief of the world's most powerful military.

To get an idea of how fast this summit was put together you only need to rewind to March, when South Korea's national security adviser appeared in Washington with an urgent message to Mr Trump that Mr Kim wanted to meet him as soon as possible.

Mr Trump, overruling the misgivings of many of his senior counsellors, smelled opportunity. He was ready to redeem his campaign promise that he would have "no problem" meeting face to face with the Korean leader.

From there to the choice of June 12 as summit date and Singapore as venue, to the abrupt cancellation announced by Mr Trump and his rapid about-face after receiving a conciliatory note from Mr Kim, the Korean whirligig has been unceasing.

Yet it is wise to temper the optimism with plenty of caution and to remember that the North Korean story has been a long one, subject to periodic bouts of exultation as much as despair. This is not the first attempt to bring peace to the Korean peninsula although never before has a serving US president sat down with a North Korean leader in three generations of the Kim dynasty.

Mr Trump and Mr Kim - despite their vast powers over their people -  have various constituencies to cater to. For the US President, it is to convince a doubting Congress, and partisan lawmakers, that he is on the right path. There are also deep sceptics, like National Security Adviser John Bolton, in the Trump team.

Likewise, it was not a surprise that Mr Kim, shortly before emplaning for Singapore, shuffled his military brass to ensure minimum dissent over his decision to bargain with the nuclear deterrence North Korea has painstakingly built over decades.

The Singapore Summit is but the first step on what will be a long road. North Korea's nuclear programme was not built in a day, and dismantling it will not be done in an hour.

Like the Iran nuclear deal that Mr Trump is reversing, this deal too will be buffeted by strong winds both from the aft as well as the sides. There are many in South Korea, Japan, China and Russia who, too, are watching the developments with more than a measure of nervousness.

But it will stand to the credit of these two men - often derided as madmen - that they had the statesmanship to attempt to settle a nettlesome relationship and bring peace to a corner of Asia that has witnessed some of the worst bestiality man has imposed on man.