The only positive the meeting of the two maverick leaders, Donald Trump of the US and Kim Jong-un of North Korea, has produced is a concrete concession by the former and an empty promise by the latter. Trump, as he alone can be expected to behave in such an unpredictable manner, announced an end to the joint military exercises with South Korea — without consulting the latter or the US military. Claiming after the summit with Kim in Singapore on Tuesday, Trump claimed, again which only he can claim, that he had “developed a very special bond” with Kim, and sounded triumphant. Prone to always see himself larger than life, and keen to prove he can achieve none of his predecessors could, on Tuesday he appeared to be in a very generous mood towards the North Korean dictator, issuing him certificates of good conduct and inviting him to visit him in the White House.
How the leader of a closed country, who has ruled over its people with an iron grip, denying all freedoms and virtually starving them, could undergo a change of heart after a meeting with Trump defies logic. But, with Trump, everything is possible. A self-obsessed unorthodox president who has most brazenly upended all the established rules of diplomacy, and gone out of his way to rile the long-term allies of the US, Trump has now moved overnight from calling Kim names — Rocketman, for one — to clasping his hand and proclaiming him to be a well-intentioned leader keen on peace and prosperity for his people. The joint communiqué of the meeting was vague, giving no clue as what will follow and how from Singapore.
But while Kim merely promised to denuclearise, without providing any hint as to who and how this would be verified, Trump unilaterally proclaimed an end to the joint military exercises meant to keep the US and the South Korean militaries in total preparedness should the Kim regime suddenly crumble or in order to ward off the threat he undertakes an adventurous attack against its southern neighbour. Both, the US defence forces stationed in the Korean peninsula and the South Korean government, expressed surprise at the Trump announcement. Anyway, allies and foes, more the former, have to necessarily come to terms with the impulsive and unconventional ways of the disrupter-in-chief in the White House. In the case of Kim, neither he nor Trump revealed what was to be given to Kim for him to abandon his sole survival kit, that is, his nuclear-tipped, long-distance missiles which were capable of hitting cities in continental America. Why would he abandon his nukes without getting something in return? Millions of North Koreans were denied two square meals a day so that Kim could arm himself with his expensive modern toys which guarantee him mutual survival or mutual destruction.
Clearly, in the razzmatazz Trump is known to create around himself, there is something that does not meet the eye. Maybe we will know more in the coming days as South Korea and Japan, worried at Trump’s unilateralist ways, seek reassurance that they are not being abandoned at the tender mercies of a 34-year-old despot who plays demi-god to his long-suffering people and who has a history of reneging on solemn pledges given to world leaders in the past. If Trump brought up Kim’s terrible human rights record even edgeways is not known. In short, Trump has to be taken with more than a pinch of salt. Such scepticism is warranted not only because we are dealing with a despot who has subjugated his people behind an iron curtain, but also because his nukes can trigger a conflagration which can very soon embroil the big powers into taking sides.
A few hours in the modern city-state, which spent some $20 million on hosting the summit and the attendant costs of security, cannot change the course of history, especially when the problem dates back to the unfinished business of the World War II and the war in the Koreas that followed in its wake. Notably, the two Koreas officially are still at war, something which can be rectified without any cost to anyone in a jiffy. As a photo-op, the summit was a greater opportunity for Kim, who could tell his starving millions he was an equal of the leader of the greatest military and economic power in the world, sharing the stage with him. Trump, as usual, seemed nonchalant, patronisingly patting Kim on his arm while the two posed for the assembled world cameramen. The success or failure of the summit will be known when the policy wonks from both countries grapple with the details to lift sanctions in return for Kim to wind down his nuclear programme. Shutting off a couple of missile testing sites means nothing, he may have some others hidden from the world or he can start them anew. Trust but verify, as one of Trump’s equally inexperienced but more reliable predecessor, Ronald Reagan, was fond of saying.