United States President Donald Trump will be remembered in East Asia either as a Hero or a Zero. The Singapore Summit, held recently between Mr Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, has been described as "historic" because the heads of government of these two countries were meeting for the first time.
A small handshake. A big move? [Photo: Reuters]
However, it could, in fact, be remembered as truly historic if it succeeds in delivering on its promises and generates a new process of national reconciliation resulting eventually, at some time in the future, in the unification of the two Koreas.
On the other hand, if Mr Kim fails to deliver and Mr Trump is held back by the military-industrial complex in the US and the Washington DC policy establishment, the summit’s legacy would be no more than an increase in the occupancy rate at the Cappella Hotel on Singapore’s Sentosa Island.
In the first twenty four hours after the summit, the internet has been flooded by a barrage of supercilious criticism from the American policy elite.
A senior international relations scholar told the TV channel CNN that summit meetings are not meant to be hijacked by the interlocutors. Summits are built from below. They are not constructed from the top!
This is precisely the kind of intellectual arrogance of the policy elite, the organisational and intellectual sherpas who imagine they are the architects of summit meetings, that popular politicians with a mind of their own detest. While most intellectuals remain skeptical about Mr Trump’s "mind", the fact is that he went to the Cappella Hotel determined to do it his way. Perhaps even his closest aides were surprised by some of the things he said at the press conference.
I'll do it my way. [Photo: Reuters]
Indeed, having seen the preparatory work for a couple of summits during my time in the Indian Prime Minister’s office, I can say that sometimes a political leader is quite happy to leave the drafting of a joint statement to officials while pursuing his own agenda at the summit level with his counterpart.
That is precisely what seems to have happened in Singapore. There was a statement that may well have been drafted by President Trump’s aides, while the real meat in the meeting may have been what the two interlocutors discussed in their one-on-one closed door conversation.
Heading towards a closed — and open — door. [Photo: Reuters]
Summits are not about dotting the Is and crossing the Ts in a public document. That is what diplomats do, media reports and analysts discuss. A meaningful summit is more often than not the starting point of a process, not its end-point. It is a top-down process, not bottom-up.
The US policy establishment, both government agencies and the policy elite outside government may well have been focused on North Korea’s denuclearisation. Is that really a political priority for a US President? Does the timetable of Korean denuclearisation really matter to the US? What is the real strategic priority for the US in East Asia? To denuclearise North Korea, leaving China and Russia as the only nuclear powers in that corner of the world? To weaken defence relations with allies like South Korea and Japan, leaving China as the dominant power in the region?
Does the US policy elite really think President Trump doesn’t get it?
Is Trump crazy — or is there a method to his apparent madness?
Studying President’s Trump’s politics and policies during the first two years in office I am convinced that he is a Big Picture guy who leaves the details to his trusted aides — if the aides do not deliver (like his former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor), he just changes his aides like one would change one’s clothes.
For President Trump, the Singapore Summit was not just about denuclearisation and reducing the level of US defence spending in the region, forcing regional allies like Japan and South Korea to spend more. Incidentally, when he was asked at the press conference as to who would bear the cost of North Korean denuclearisation, his reply was prompt — “Japan, South Korea and China”. After all, they would all be the immediate beneficiaries of a nuke-less Pyongyang.
The Singapore Summit must be viewed against the backdrop of long-term changes underway in Asia and US strategy to deal with them. While China has welcomed the outcome of the summit, it must worry about the new Trump-Kim bonhomie. The normalisation of relations between the US and North Korea, following the new reconciliation process between the two Koreas, could well unleash the underlying peninsula-wide sentiment for reunification.
When Kim met Moon. [Photo: Reuters]
The Korean people, like the Germans in Europe, derive pride from their long history. Like the Germans, the Koreans too trace their cultural origins and ethnic identity to the 1st Century BC. After twenty centuries of a shared civilisational identity, the Korean people were divided into two political entities in the middle of the 20th Century.
The Germans were fortunate to have ended their division a quarter century ago, at the end of the Cold War.
When the Berlin Wall came down. [Photo: Reuters]
Alas, the Koreans have not been so lucky thus far.
On the eve of the very first official visit to the Republic of Korea by an Indian Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1993, I visited South Korea to write a series of articles on a country that was little known in India at the time. One of my visits in Seoul was to the newly set up Korean Institute for National Unification (KINU). Its mandate was to study the German experience and prepare policy papers on how the two Koreas could manage their eventual reunification. A quarter century later, I would imagine KINU is ready with its blueprints.
What the two Koreas need is a supportive global and regional environment.
Among all the major powers only the US would benefit, strategically, from Korean unification.
Is it at all possible that President Trump believed that in Singapore earlier this week, he was not really initiating the process of Korean denuclearisation but of Korean reunification? Was he looking at the next few months — or the next few years? Was the meeting with President Kim part of a wider and long-term strategy to, in fact, reinforce US influence, if not presence, in the region?
Those who climb a summit have a view of the world that is very different from those who live in the lower hills, the valleys and the plains. One wonders what Mr Trump and Mr Kim saw on the horizon when they stood tall at their summit.