Trump-Kim summit: Singapore hosting a potential watershed moment in world history

Trump-Kim summit: Singapore hosting a potential watershed moment in world history

trump-kim summit map
(Graphic: Rafa Estrada) 

SINGAPORE: A wavering possibility, rekindled by unexpected overtures, finally looks set for fruition.

The highly anticipated tête-à-tête between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un on Tuesday (Jun 12) is on the brink of reality.

For the first time, a sitting US President and a North Korean leader, representing two countries which have never seen eye to eye, will meet face to face, and the island nation of Singapore will host this historic event.

Just weeks ago, when Kim and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in took a stroll in the border village of Panmunjom, the sun shined again over the peninsula as the neighbours engaged like old friends.

The world watched.

When state leaders convene, even simple gestures – be it a hesitant handshake or an exuberant embrace – are scrutinised from every angle.

Every uttered word is recorded as analysts and journalists dissect the discourse in the days and weeks that follow. And of course, the dining that goes with the diplomacy becomes the subject of media interest too.

Kim Jong Un reached out to South Korean President Moon Jae-in in time for the Winter Olympics and
Kim Jong Un reached out to South Korean President Moon Jae-in in time for the Winter Olympics and they held a historic summit in April 2018. (Photo: AFP/Korea Summit Press Pool)

In summary, summits are significant. And the one Singapore is prepared to host ranks among the biggest that have altered the course of history.

Even the recent Korean summit had a precedent just 18 years ago. But one between a US and North Korean leader has always remained an unlikely prospect since the Americans left the unfinished Korean War.

More than half a century of pent-up anger, sanctions, sabre-rattling and diatribes between 11 US administrations and three successive North Korean leaders, have stalled nuclear disarmament talks and exacerbated tensions across the globe.

This precarious backdrop sets the scene for this once unimaginable summit. And it’s precisely why there is a desperate optimism in some quarters for a watershed moment, even as questions remain as to whether hot button issues like the Korean War and denuclearisation will be addressed.

Writing for The National Interest, Robert E Kelly, associate professor of international relations at Pusan National University, described the summit as "one of America's strangest meeting" where he expected very little and yet hoped for the best.

"Indeed at this point, it looks to be a nothing burger of photos and short, ‘get to know you’ meetings that yield nothing. But, again, if this meeting must happen, then let America should (sic) pull for Trump given just how important the stakes. Prove your critics wrong, Mr President," he said.


While meetings between leaders are regular features of international relations, few can be perceived as significant turning points in human history.

Hark back to the height of the Cold War, and you come across one of the most unexpected summits to have taken place in the last hundred years – the meeting between US President Richard Nixon and his Chinese counterpart Mao Zedong in Beijing.

The historic handshake between Chinese leader Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon in 1972
The historic handshake between Chinese leader Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon in 1972. (Photo: AFP)

The balance of world power underwent a tectonic shift, as the leaders from opposite sides of the political spectrum shook hands and shocked the world in February 1972.

US rapprochement with the Chinese dealt the Soviets a rude awakening in their quest for dominance in the bipolar conflict. While there were other factors that led to the eventual Soviet downfall, Nixon’s visit to China arguably precipitated the beginning of the end of the Cold War, opened China to the rest of the world and helped in the normalisation of its relations with its adversary, Japan.

“For East Asia, the last most important summit was probably the Nixon-Mao summit that changed the course of the Cold War,” associate professor Bhubhindar Singh, a Northeast Asia expert from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told Channel NewsAsia.

The world would head in a different direction from that moment.

Not long after that momentous occasion, still within the theatre of the Cold War, another memorable summit drew global attention.

The famous Geneva fireside chat between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in November 1985 was another significant step towards ending the bitter conflict and the beginning of a temporary period of détente between the world powers.

This meeting set the wheels in motion for subsequent summits between the two leaders, eventually paving the way for the end of the Cold War.

Recent history has also recorded such unlikely get-togethers.

Following decades of Cold War tensions, Barack Obama and Raul Castro, pictured in 2016, in announced
Following decades of Cold War tensions, Barack Obama and Raul Castro, pictured in 2016, in announced a warming of relations in December 2014 AFP/STR

The meeting between former US President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro just three years ago, was the first between an American and Cuban leader in half a century that quickly unlocked the doors to diplomatic ties.

Later in the same year, the world turned its attention to Asia, and specifically Singapore.

Shattering nearly seven-decades of tension, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou shook hands for almost a minute. Shifting in synchronised fashion from right to left for every camera flash to capture the historic moment, their smiles sustained throughout the handshake as a signal of solidarity.

A watershed moment in cross-strait relations, said Chinese media, although hindsight might suggest otherwise. It was historic based on its symbolism, but not the impact it had on the future.

The Xi-Ma summit in 2015 was the first time leaders from Beijing and Taipei met since Taiwan split
The Xi-Ma summit in 2015 was the first time leaders from Beijing and Taipei met since Taiwan split from the mainland in 1949. (Photo: AFP/ROSLAN RAHMAN)

That meeting, though, put Singapore under the global spotlight as host, bringing it valuable experience in the delicate task of accommodating leaders amid political sensitivities and security concerns that could have global ramifications. 

What the island nation is about to handle over the next few days is, however, a different ball game altogether, not just because of the potential for a turning point of global magnitude.

Putting the historical element aside, the Trump-Kim summit draws undue attention simply because of the leaders themselves.

The protracted antagonism between Washington and Pyongyang is well-documented and has consistently manifested itself in the exchanges and statements under various administrations and leaders.

But the language has never been more colourful and undiplomatic – “little rocketman”, “dotard” and “short and fat” come to mind - even as US allies, Japan and South Korea observed the tit for tat with bated breath.

However, the tense state of affairs was suddenly assuaged, partly by an inexplicable exchange of cordial letters over the course of a week. Suddenly, the interaction took a more measured tone - perhaps even presidential as some have observed.

For now, it seems all is well and good.


Preparations have been underway at frenetic pace with officials from both sides conducting high-level meetings and communicating directly with their Singaporean hosts.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis were crystal clear in their appreciation of Singapore’s efforts in hosting the summit when they met their counterparts.   

Ng Eng Hen, James Mattis
US Defense Secretary James Mattis and Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen meeting on the sidelines of the 16th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. (Photo: MINDEF)

Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said many officials have commented that without Singapore, preparations for the summit “would not have progressed so far”. It’s a testament to the country’s increasingly critical role in global politics.

Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan was succinct in describing the hosts sentiment during a working trip to Washington earlier in the week.

"Happy to play (its) part for world peace," he said, as he met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Just before welcoming the two leaders on Sunday, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted how this historic meeting gives the country publicity.

"The fact that we have been chosen as the site of the meeting, we did not ask for it ... it says something about Singapore relations with the parties ... and our standing in the international community," he said. 

When historic events take place, the cities that host them are entered into history as well. 

The most famous capitals and even the most obscure towns become synonymous with epoch-making moments.

The Versailles Treaty that ended World War I, the Potsdam conference of World War II, the Bretton Woods Agreement that laid the foundation for the global economic system, and just two years ago, the historic Paris Climate Agreement – all among examples of significant turning points, named and remembered after their hosts.

Visitors at the gardens of the Versailles Palace outside Paris on Tuesday
Visitors at the gardens of the Versailles Palace outside Paris on Tuesday AFP/FRANCOIS GUILLOT

Singapore’s place among them should not be determined by the outcome of this summit, one could argue, as questions remain as to whether the meeting between Trump and Kim will be a watershed moment.

“For Kim, this meeting is important for several reasons: To gain legitimacy for himself and his country. This meeting is also important for North Korea as it is in negotiation talks with the most important threat to its regime and national security," associate professor Bhubhindar Singh said.

“For Trump, this meeting is to show his ability to ‘resolve’ the most difficult issue that other American administrations have failed to achieve. In more strategic terms, a deal here would reinforce America’s advantage and military presence in Northeast Asia vis-à-vis China."

Some believe this could be just the start of a long drawn out process, especially in the sphere of denuclearisation.

"Kim is focused on the long game. If talks go forward after June, their differences over denuclearising Korea obviously won’t be resolved in a day," wrote Kent Harrington, a former CIA senior analyst, in a commentary.

Will the summit mirror the impact of the Nixon-Mao meeting? Or will it begin a process of détente as did the famous fireside chat? Will it quickly open doors to diplomatic ties? Or simply be written as an inconsequential historic event, as was the Xi-Ma meeting?

All we know for now is that the magnitude of what’s at stake cannot be overstated: The demands for North Korea’s denuclearisation, the possibility of ending the Korean War and normalising relations on the Korean Peninsula, and the impact of all this on the region and the rest of the world.

The scheduled meeting between two eccentric world leaders, with the baggage of the past and present in tow, will draw all the attention from across the globe. Journalists and officials have already descended on the island in the thousands, casting a blinding spotlight on this tiny Southeast Asian country.

According to associate professor Bhubhindar Singh: “The selection of Singapore says a lot of who Singapore is – an efficient, honest, neutral country that can be trusted to hold such an important summit.”

Singapore – known for its efficiency, infrastructure and organisational competency – has to pull out all the stops for this one.  It’s a mammoth task to be executed within a tight schedule.

The world awaits the Singapore Summit on Jun 12, 2018.  

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Source: CNA/mn