Commenting on the meeting between the United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, most analysts said they had to pinch themselves to realise that what they were witnessing was real. As if he was responding to these shocked analysts, the North Korean leader told Trump this was not any fantasy or science fiction. Such was the significance of the believe-it-or-not political event on Tuesday in the Singaporean island of Sentosa, which means peace and tranquillity in Malay.
Yes, what seemed only a few months ago impossible has happened. Just a few months ago, the two leaders were heaping insults on each other.
The Singapore summit is now a landmark in post World War II history, perhaps rivalled only by US president Richard Nixon’s meeting with Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1972.
But wait a minute. It is too early to proclaim that peace will dawn soon over the Korean Peninsula, ending 65 years of hostility. The path ahead is paved with many a hurdle. But before that, a little bit of history:
The Korean War that began on June 25, 1950 has not technically ended, though the parties to the war have been observing a truce since July 1953. The war ended with no clear victor, but the moral victory belonged to North Korea. It could have won the war, if the United States had not entered the war in support of the South.
Although North Korea has been portrayed as an evil state by the United States, which itself is being accused of committing war crimes, North Korea’s eternal leader Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the present leader, was a visionary. Within three years after the then cold war politics divided Korea along the 38th parallel in 1948 into the Soviet-and-China backed North and the US-backed South, Kim Il-sung made North Korea a prosperous state through a series of socialist economic reforms. In 1950, North Korea invaded the South with the ambition of uniting the two Koreas and liberating the southern peasants.
With a series of rapid gains, the North Korean troops reached Pusan, the southernmost tip of Korea. The US forces, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, who was also overseeing the post-WWII occupation of Japan, held off the North Koreans at Pusan. Meanwhile, manipulating the UN Security Council and misleading the Soviet delegation, the US worked out an international intervention force to enter the war. This turned the tide. In three years of war, the US forces and allied troops almost annihilated North Korea, wiping out 20 percent of its population. But the direct intervention of China at the last stages of the war, helped work out a truce and restore the 38th parallel ceasefire line which has since been the de facto border between the two Koreas.
Since then, the North Koreans have been looking at the US as an enemy, responsible for their misfortunes.
Yet, at the summit, Kim Jong-un, now being honourably referred to as by the US President as ‘Chairman Kim’, told Trump: “It has not been easy to come to this point. For us the past has been holding us back, and old practices and prejudices have been covering our eyes and ears, but we have been able to overcome everything.”
Easier said than done. If a half day’s summit could cut a key from seven decades of animosity to open the door to peace, it will be a world wonder, though some may say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. True, the ice has been broken. But, the question is: Has the thawing process begun?
The Singapore summit is not a kiss-and-make-up affair. Both Trump and Kim are hard nuts. The summit appeared to be a battle of wits – a battle, according to Trump-thrashing US media, Kim has won. Against the backdrop of handshakes, pats on the backs and diplomatic niceties, the air of mutual suspicion and one-upmanship was perceptible to the discerning mind. The looks from the corner of the eyes -- especially those which Kim secretly and quickly cast on Trump --and the vaguely worded post-summit communiqués symbolised the undercurrents. Kim has pledged to work for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula while Trump has given security guarantees. There was little or nothing concrete and specific.
The pledges contained in the communiqué are nothing new; similar pledges were made during the six-party talks in 2005, only to be broken even before the ink dried. Hours after the summit ended, the two sides upped the ante, giving different interpretations. North Korea on Wednesday interpreted what it had agreed in Singapore as a step-by-step denuclearisation process subject to conditions.
Though, the US side took no decision to immediately lift the economic sanctions on North Korea, the survival of the summit’s momentum depends on concessions each side will make. As far as North Korea is concerned, lifting of the sanctions is a top priority. Now who will make the first move?
By pointing at last month’s dismantling of the nuclear test site facility, North Korea may insist that it has already taken the first step. It may now urge the US to lift at least a few sanctions. But following a meeting with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday North Korea would not see any economic sanctions lifted until it had demonstrated “complete denuclearisation”.
The Pompeo comments were in sharp contrast to sentiments expressed by Twitter-happy Trump. Upon returning home, he tweeted, “Just landed -- a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
The contents of the tweet indicate that Trump is more concerned about his domestic vote base than international peace. The Singapore summit has raised his stocks among his supporters. They say he has displayed courage to do what other US presidents have shunned to do. He took a similar hardline position at last week’s G7 summit in Canada where he stood by his ‘America first’ policy, despite pressure from his G7 allies to relax tariffs and trade terms.
The Singapore and Canada adventures may help Trump face reelection with confidence in 2020, but his posturing does not make him a man of peace. His Jerusalem move – shifting the US embassy to Jerusalem in breach of international law — was certainly not what a peace-loving leader would do.
North Korea is not naïve to give away its strategic weapons for a few billion dollars or onTrump’s assurance to scrap US war games with South Korea, unless the gains are much more than the losses. The stakes are high. North Korea gets all the respects because of its nukes. It will continue to play hardball with the Trump administration. At the same time, it is desperate to improve its economy.
The US-North Korea summit cannot be seen as rapprochement because it comes at a time when the US-China cold war is seen to be intensifying in the Indo-Pacific region. With China being North Korea’s only trusted ally, Pyongyang is unlikely to move into unchartered waters with the US, abandoning the lifeline China has been offering it.