US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s historic meeting in Singapore yesterday and the budding relationship between the two men represent the most significant shift in US policy toward the region in decades. Indeed, the first high-profile glimpse of a new Asian geopolitical landscape may be taking shape.
While media pundits in the West were skeptical and even cynical of the aspirational declaration signed between the two leaders – who were until recently adversaries exchanging barbs and threats of war – opinions in Asia, including those of world leaders in the region, generally welcomed and praised the unprecedented détente.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, whose role as an interlocutor between Trump and Kim helped to bring the summit to fruition, praised both leaders for taking a “daring step towards change” and hailed the outcome as ending the world’s last remaining Cold War conflict.
Moon and South Korean premier Lee Nak-yeon reacted to a live stream of Trump and Kim’s first-ever handshake with beaming smiles, with the former saying during a Cabinet meeting that he “hardly slept last night” in anticipation of the momentous meeting. Still, questions remain about what a new friendship between Washington and Pyongyang will mean for the wider region.
Critics of the document signed by the two leaders regarded it as vague for omitting timelines and specific steps to achieving denuclearization. Furthermore, the declaration pledges both parties uphold “the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and does not mention “complete, verifiable, irreversible, denuclearization.”
The former phrase can be interpreted as including the US nuclear umbrella – American security guarantees to non-nuclear US-allied South Korea and Japan – in the overall denuclearization process, a position that is believed to reflect Pyongyang’s expectations of the Korean Peninsula’s “complete” denuclearization.
While that remains to be seen, Trump’s legacy-defining decision to normalize relations with Pyongyang, arguably his first major foreign policy initiative, came with a pledge to halt joint US-South Korean military exercises while negotiations are ongoing. The signed declaration made no mention of ending the exercises, which Trump announced at a press conference.
The US president even called the drills “provocative,” an unprecedented gesture that would be meaningfully received in Pyongyang, which has always viewed the joint exercises as hostile and in some cases as preparation for an invasion. Trump’s pronouncement, however, came as a surprise to the South Korean government.
Moon’s office said it needed to ascertain Trump’s “exact meaning or intentions” behind the cancellation of drills. Analysts believe the South Korean leader won’t take issue with the move, considering he requested to cancel a scheduled exercise to avoid disturbing negotiations then underway between Seoul and Pyongyang earlier this year.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who regards Pyongyang with hardline skepticism, dubbed the historic summit as “a step towards a comprehensive settlement of issues.” Abe seeks in particular to resolve the highly emotive issue of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.
Trump, who had promised Abe he would raise the issue, claimed that he broached the topic and won a promise from Kim that “it will be worked on.” It is unclear whether Kim, who in recent months has met with the leaders of South Korea, China and the US, may now meet Abe for direct talks on the issue in lieu of Pyongyang’s push for diplomatic engagement.
China, North Korea’s most important economic and diplomatic backer, praised the outcome of the summit, while Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for a peace mechanism addressing North Korea’s “reasonable security concerns.” Beijing, he said, intends to “play a significant role” in discussions on denuclearization and the formalization of a peace process.
Beijing has also indicated that it favors some sort of relief on the increasingly tough United Nations sanctions imposed on Pyongyang last year. “China has consistently held that sanctions are not the goal in themselves,” said foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. “The Security Council’s actions should support and conform to the efforts of current diplomatic talks.”
In Singapore, meanwhile, the wealthy Southeast Asian city-state is enjoying a reputational high, successfully playing host to a summit that boosted its global image and reputation while also taking the opportunity to curry favor with two of the world’s least conventional and most controversial leaders.
Singapore, which has close military links with the US but is not a treaty ally, also has long-standing diplomatic ties with North Korea. The island republic was regarded by both sides as capable of ensuring the two leaders’ security while providing a neutral meeting ground.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called the summit “a crucial first move in the long journey towards lasting peace and stability on a denuclearized Korean peninsula.” Lee received both leaders at the Istana, the premier’s working office. Singapore budgeted about US$15 million for the historic meeting, according to Lee.
Lee has previously voiced anxieties about the Trump administration’s commitments to free-trade multilateralism and its long-standing alliances in Asia. The summit was thus an opportunity to raise Singapore’s stature with the Trump administration while deepening its personal engagement with the unconventional president.
According to Lee, Trump agreed to return to the city-state in November for an official state visit. Singapore was chosen as host to the summit not only for reasons of security and neutrality. Reports indicate that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wanted the event held in a successful Asian city to give Kim a glimpse of a “prosperous place.”
Flanked by dozens of North Korean bodyguards and accompanied by Singapore’s top diplomat, Vivian Balakrishnan, Kim and his entourage took a night stroll along Singapore’s gleaming waterfront on the eve of the summit, visiting the elaborate steel and glass greenhouses at Gardens by the Bay, as well as the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel.
Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s state newspaper, carried numerous images of Singapore’s gleaming skyline as Kim took in the sights. The 34-year-old leader had been briefed on Singapore’s social and economic development and said he would learn from the “knowledge and experience of Singapore in various fields in the future.”
Front-page state media spreads of Kim touring Singapore’s gleaming island metropolis conveyed a message of changing North Korean views of its place in the world. Kim, with his new confidence on the global stage and promises of “a major change,” the once-reclusive leader appears set to pursue policies of economic development in earnest.
“North Korea’s national goal has been to become an advanced country like South Korea or Singapore, but it had no chance to achieve this under pressure and sanctions,” says veteran South Korean journalist and diplomatic correspondent Wang Son-taek.
“Pyongyang has made a big decision to jump into normal society with a new strategic posture,” he said. “Walking around Singapore would give Kim ideas on facilitating his goal of pursuing national development in order to become a country like Singapore in the future, in a decade or two.”
During his evening stroll around Singapore, Balakrishnan took a selfie with a smiling Kim alongside Education Minister Ong Ye Kung against a backdrop of flowers, a move criticized by some netizens wary of the politicians’ uncritically engaging Kim and “normalizing” an affable image of a controversial leader known for chronic human rights abuses.
“Some may consider it unwise for Singapore and its leaders to give North Korea’s regime and its leader a gloss of respectability with such a warm reception,” wrote Chua Mui Hoong, in the Straits Times, Singapore’s daily broadsheet.
“The truth is that the world has everything to gain from nudging North Korea to become a full, civil member of the international community, and nothing to gain from treating it as a pariah.”