You are here
History made but Trump-Kim meet needs more substance to convince
AS Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un casually strolled along the colonnade of the Capella Hotel on Tuesday morning, a comment from the North Korean leader perhaps best captured the sentiment of the pair's first meeting.
"Many people will think of this as a scene from a fantasy . . . a science-fiction movie," Mr Kim told the American president via an interpreter, fully aware that the world was witnessing a watershed moment that few people would ever have expected to materialise.
Now, what has captured the imagination needs to find substance.
It is easy to get caught up in the spectacle and political theatre of this very carefully choreographed encounter - after all, never before had a sitting US president met face-to-face with a North Korean leader.
Mr Trump and Mr Kim are 38 years apart in age and are arguably two of the most unpredictable and polarising figures in the world.
Not too long ago, they were trading insults and North Korea was still conducting missile tests, so to watch them flash the broadest of grins and pat each other on the back before and after inking a landmark joint statement was surreal, to say the least.
The eventful day began with a 12-second handshake - at four minutes past 9am - that triggered a barrage of camera flashbulbs and millions of Facebook and Twitter posts. It is a striking image that will live long in the memory and be discussed and analysed for generations to come.
After that initial greeting on a red carpet at the hotel, Mr Trump and Mr Kim spent 40 minutes alone in a room with just their translators present.
They were then joined by their top aides for an expanded bilateral meeting and later sat down for lunch as waiters served them beef short-rib confit, fried rice with sweet and sour pork, and soy-braised cod.
The attention soon turned to the contents of the two-page document that now bears the signatures of Mr Trump and Mr Kim.
The US president committed to provide "security guarantees" to North Korea, while Mr Kim reaffirmed his "firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation" of the Korean Peninsula.
The two leaders also committed "to establish new US-DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) relations", and they agreed to "join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula".
Crucially, they pledged to implement all the stipulations in the joint statement "fully and expeditiously" - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will take the lead on behalf of the US from now on, while North Korea will name a high-level official to continue the talks with the Americans.
At an extraordinary hour-long press conference after lunch, Mr Trump caused a stir when he announced that he had agreed to suspend military exercises with South Korea in exchange for a commitment from Mr Kim to denuclearise.
That promise by Mr Trump - widely seen as a major concession by the US - seemed to surprise the South Korean government and even the US forces. They said in separate statements that they would seek further clarification and guidance before responding.
Mr Trump also said that US sanctions against North Korea would stay in place for now, but he looked forward to ending them if relations progress.
Mr Trump said he has invited Mr Kim to the White House at an appropriate time, and the US leader was also receptive to the idea of travelling to Pyongyang for the first time at some point.
While many cheered the fact that the summit ended on a positive note, the more measured reactions were tempered with a large degree of caution. Some defence and political analysts stressed that there was not enough substance in the joint declaration, and that the statements from both camps were more symbolic than anything else.
Anwita Basu, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, noted that the fact that there was no mention of a "verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation" suggests that the US and North Korea are still not on the same page in defining this concept.
Asked at the press conference why those terms were missing from the final text, Mr Trump would only reply: "There was no time. I am here (in Singapore) one day."
An analysis from Andrew Gilholm of risk consultancy Control Risks described the joint statement as "brief and vague, and lacked any detail or new commitments".
"It is likely to be criticised by many observers who object to Trump dealing with Kim without tangible North Korean commitments to real, rapid denuclearisation, although such commitments were never a realistic expectation," he said.
Anthony Ruggiero, senior fellow at Washington's Foundation for Defense of Democracies think-tank, told Reuters it was unclear if negotiations would lead to denuclearisation, or end with broken promises, as had happened in the past. "This looks like a restatement of where we left negotiations more than 10 years ago and not a major step forward," he said.
In the eyes of Mr Trump and Mr Kim, however, both will feel they emerged from their summit as real winners, and for very different reasons.
Mr Trump will certainly want to claim the summit as his legacy - he hailed it as a "very important event in world history", and described the talks as "honest, direct and productive".
Mr Kim - a man often vilified by the US for human rights violations - will undoubtedly return to Pyongyang satisfied with what he achieved in Singapore.
At the start of the year, he was painted as the world's public enemy Number One, an isolated figure in the global community with seemingly few friends to turn to.
During his 48-hour stay in Singapore, he was welcomed at the Istana, toured some of the Lion City's tourist attractions, and had numerous photo opportunities with the leader of the world's most powerful nation against a colourful backdrop of US and North Korea flags.
Some experts say Mr Kim achieved the ultimate goal of having Mr Trump legitimise him on the world stage as an equal of the US president.
Before both leaders departed on their private planes for home, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sent separate letters to them and said that Singapore was honoured to have hosted the summit.
Mr Lee said the joint statement was a "crucial first move" in the long journey towards lasting peace and stability on a denuclearised Korean Peninsula.
"We join the international community in celebrating this outcome, and in wishing both the DPRK and the US success in implementing this agreement," he said.
Mr Lee will meet Mr Trump again in November when the US leader makes a state visit to Singapore in conjunction with the Asean-US and East Asian summits.
In his letter to Mr Kim, Mr Lee said he hoped the North Korean leader enjoyed his stay in Singapore and that he looked forward to meeting him again in the near future.