Everyone, including Barack Obama himself, was a bit embarrassed when the former US President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, barely a year after coming to power. Now, two years into the tenure of his successor, Donald Trump, could a second Peace Prize be headed to the White House? Will Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore on Tuesday help end a conflict that is seven decades old?
It seemed impossible to contemplate. Could Trump, a man whose presidency has been marked by racism, sexism, an investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russians and a series of ugly battles with American allies, end up making a lasting contribution to global peace?
This is after all the man who insisted that his nuclear button is ”bigger” than North Korea’s. This is the man who spends the early morning tweeting angrily about what he saw on TV. This is the US president who insisted on calling North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, “little rocket man”. This is the “leader of the free world” whose aides cannot stop talking about and treating him like a toddler.
Still, it is impossible to deny the power of the visuals that came out of Singapore, with Trump shaking hands and then sitting to discuss the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula with Kim. Trump had to desist from grinning, but Kim had no such compunction, breaking out into a broad smile the minute he met the US president – and thereby achieved something his father and grandfather had failed to do.
What actually came of the summit?
The two leaders signed a joint statement in which the US agreed to establish official diplomatic relations with North Korea while Kim affirmed his commitment to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” There was little in the way of specifics. Indeed, it is unclear even what denuclearization means: The US tends to see it as North Korea giving up its nuclear programme, while Pyongyang understands it to mean Washington will also end its alliance with South Korea, including withdrawing the 30,000 American troops on the peninsula.
But the overall impression was of a successful summit, in which Trump promised to let North Korea open up if Kim could show forward movement on getting rid of his nuclear programme. At a press conference afterwards, Trump elaborated on his new relationship with the “Supreme Leader” of North Korea.
“I want to thank Chairman Kim for taking the first bold step toward a bright new future for his people... My meeting with Chairman Kim was honest, direct, and productive. We got to know each other well in a very confined period of time,” Trump said. “It’s a very great moment in the history of the world. Chairman Kim is on his way back to North Korea and I know for a fact that as soon as he arrives he will start a process that will make a lot of people very happy and very safe.”
The US president then went on to address a press conference that was classic Trump. When asked about Kim’s human rights violations, Trump said he was a “very talented” person who was able to run his country. When asked why he believed that the North Koreans would actually follow through on their promises, Trump said it was because he was the one negotiating. He also pointed out that he had not slept for 25 hours.
Interestingly, Trump already spoke of what he would be getting out of the deal in addition to the nuclear commitments, even though there were no specifics on how the denuclearisation would be verified. “I want to get our soldiers out. I want to bring our soldiers back home. We have 32,000 soldiers in South Korea. I would like to be able to bring them back home,” he said. “That’s not part of the equation. At some point, I hope it would be. We will stop the war games which will save us a tremendous amount of money. Unless and until we see the future negotiations is not going along like it should. We will be saving a tremendous amount of money.”
This harks back to the Trump that was occasionally seen during the presidential campaign, the candidate who argued that America was trying to do too much internationally and should instead pull back its troops and let the world police itself. Trump has not done much in the way of actually following through on those promises – indeed he has continued US involvement in Afghanistan and West Asia – but it seems to still be a talking point.
What happens now?
The details will have to be worked out in due course, starting with what exactly Kim means by complete denuclearisation and how that will be verified. Trump was vague when asked who would be permitted into North Korea to confirm that it was indeed dismantling its nuclear programme, though he said that Kim is destroying a major missile engine testing site, even though that is not in the agreement.
If Kim does go ahead in a manner that the US is comfortable with and Trump follows through on his promises to pull back troops from South Korea and even Japan, it could reshape Asian geopolitics. South Korea has so far been positive about these efforts, but any withdrawal of American power from the region would leave it deeply vulnerable to Kim – while also giving China a bigger role to play.
This could have a lasting impact on India as well, one in which New Delhi’s new positioning as a major player in an Indo-Pacific theatre becomes important. But all of that depends on whether the good will and positive words from the Singapore summit actually translates into action. Both leaders seemed to believe it would, but this would not be the first time that a much touted global summit ended up being little more than a photo-op that reduced tensions without making much of a dent on reality.
For now, though, Trump can point to an actually historic accomplishment amid the many battles and crises his administration has both caused and had to deal with. And if things do indeed work out as promised in the joint statement, he may even actually have hope of a medal headed in his direction from Norway.