This week’s smiling, hand-shaking pleasantries are a long way from earlier threats of ‘fire and fury’ and nuclear attacks. But did the Trump–Kim meeting in Singapore really broker long-term disarmament? By Hamish McDonald.

Trump and Kim’s historic summit

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump meet at the start of their historic summit.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump meet at the start of their historic summit.
Credit: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

Not far from where Donald Trump met Kim Jong-un in a Disneyland-style island resort in Singapore on Tuesday is an old British coastal fort, one of those with guns famously pointing the wrong way when the Japanese unsportingly attacked the bastion by land rather than by sea.

Inside is a life-size waxwork tableau of what took place in the local Ford Motor factory’s boardroom on February 15, 1942: Britain’s Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival signing the instruments of surrender, watched across the table by Japan’s Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita, hand resting on samurai sword.

That there’s another tableau of Louis Mountbatten accepting the Japanese surrender of the island in 1945, and that Yamashita was hanged for war crimes in 1946, will never diminish this most humiliating moment of the British Empire.

But the lesson of Western hubris underestimating oriental strategy passed by Trump. When he emerged from some five hours of talks with Kim, it soon became clear that the mid-30s North Korean had got more out of the encounter than the American president, who turned 72 on Thursday, no matter how much Trump tried later to spin it as “a great day in the history of the world”.

Their joint statement, garnished with Trump’s enormous signature and Kim’s more cramped moniker amid several handshakes, was long on grand goals − Trump “committed to provide security guarantees” to North Korea, while Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” – but bereft of specific steps or timetables.

Kim did get one big takeaway from the Sentosa Island playground. Trump announced the suspension of the large-scale yearly exercises between the United States and South Korea that involve massive American forces in addition to the 32,000-strong US garrison, and which Pyongyang regularly paints as rehearsal for pre-emptive war on the North.

“The military exercises that we conduct are tremendously expensive,” Trump said, suddenly conscious of the US budget deficit. “Our bombers fly in all the way from Guam … it is a very provocative situation. We will also save a lot of money.”

This was news to US commanders in the region, who said they were waiting to hear orders. It was news to allies Japan and South Korea. It may also have been news to Trump’s advisers when he emerged from an initial hour-long meeting with Kim, with only interpreters in attendance.

North Korea’s state news agency portrayed it as a win for Kim, saying he had told Trump it was “urgent” for North Korea and the US to stop “irritating and hostile military actions against each other”. There is no mention of any matching step by Pyongyang, such as reducing the artillery array able to bombard Seoul from just across the demilitarised zone.

What Kim gained also was an elevation in status for both the North Korean state and himself. The former pariah had two days in a pivotal nation between Asia and the West. The Singaporean prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, welcomed him with equal protocol to Trump, and his foreign minister took Kim on a night tour of the city, chased around by some of the 2500 journalists who descended on the city-state.

Visibly nervous ahead of their meeting, though, Kim had a gloved security official check the pen he was to use for the signing, perhaps for slow-acting poison. At one point a microphone picked up Kim remarking to his entourage: “Many people in the world will think this is a scene from science fiction, from fantasy.”

Trump laid on the flattery declaring his “special bond” with “Chairman Kim” whose people were lucky to have him. “He is very talented,” Trump said. “They have never had a leader with the ability and confidence to get things done.”

Human rights issues were raised, Trump insisted later, without going into specifics such as the gulag with 100,000 political prisoners or the nerve-agent assassination of Kim’s half-brother in Kuala Lumpur 16 months ago. But it was “tough” for anyone who takes over a country at 26. “It is a rough situation over there,” Trump said. “It’s rough in a lot of places.”

In Singapore, commented Michael Green, a former US national security official and North-East Asia specialist, “the president of the United States demonstrated that he has the authority to give unconditional pardons not only to felons at home, but also on the international stage”.

As for the core issues of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and capability, and the lifting of economic sanctions on it in return, this has been passed on to negotiations by officials starting as early as next week. The goal of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” is pushed into the future. “We will do it as fast as it can mechanically and physically be done,” Trump said. “It could take a long time.”

But he also said “once you start the process it means it’s pretty much over, you can’t use them” and added “the sanctions will come off when we are sure the nukes are no longer a factor”. North Korean reports said the two leaders agreed on “the principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action”.

Kim would start the process immediately on his return home, Trump said, noting he agreed in Singapore to shut down a facility for testing missile engines. Verification would come from having “a lot of people” from the US and elsewhere on the ground in North Korea.

To many specialists, Trump has thus retreated to the position of Bill Clinton in 1994 and George Bush in 2005, getting deals on phased disarmament that quickly fell apart. Kim can spin the process out, while expecting China and South Korea to ease their sanctions, and eventually consolidate recognition as a nuclear weapons power.

In Seoul on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “major disarmament” would take place over two-and-a-half years. This coincides with the rest of Trump’s term, suggesting Trump will have political reasons to overlook any fudging by Kim.

China said Trump was now following its suggested pathway. It too is happy at the suspension of “war games” and Trump saying he hoped later to withdraw US troops from South Korea. Japan and Australia indicated concerns about this.

As for international inspectors, Julie Bishop has rushed to offer Australian expertise, perhaps those officials who got shafted for not finding any weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and saying so. Trump seems to think Kim’s regime will readily accept scrutiny far more intensive than that painfully extracted from Iran in the nuclear limitation deal from which he has just withdrawn.

But experts say it’s still worth a shot. Victor Cha, a Bush adviser on North Korea, said five months ago he thought another Korean War was looming with Kim successfully testing a hydrogen bomb and intercontinental missile, and Trump threatening “fire and fury” in return. Trump has just walked us back, Cha wrote in The New York Times after the Singapore meeting. “In the case of North Korea, there are never good policy options – there are only choices between the bad and the worse.”

The Capella resort on Sentosa, where the leaders met, is shaped from one axis like a figure eight, a lucky number in Asia. From the other axis, it’s an infinity sign.

The day there truly drifted into fantasy when Trump showed off a video he presented to Kim on an iPad. “Two men, two leaders, one destiny,” intoned the voice over, before images of fast trains, high-tech laboratories and a slam-dunking basketball player. “One moment, one choice, what if?”

The inner real estate developer could not be repressed in Trump either. “They have great beaches,” he said. “You see that whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean. I said, ‘Boy, look at that view. Wouldn’t that make a great condo?’ You could have the best hotels in the world right there. Think of it from a real estate perspective. You have South Korea, you have China and they own the land in the middle. How bad is that, right? It’s great.”

It was unlikely Kim was thinking of the deal from this angle. Survival of his dynastic regime, of which he is the third-generation leader, is undoubtedly his top priority, with acquisition of more real estate in South Korea not far behind. He already has his own private beach resort.

On Sentosa, normal fantasy went on around Capella. Families mostly from the less wealthy countries around Singapore rode the cable cars and elevated trains between exhibits, museums and aquariums. In Madame Tussaud’s they took selfies with celebrity effigies ranging from Queen Elizabeth to Arnie Schwarzenegger as the Terminator.

No doubt waxworks of Trump and Kim will soon be added. For a lot of people, this would be as close as they would want to be to the real thing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 16, 2018 as "Summit’s got to give".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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