In 1998, I visited Singapore as part of a journalistic tour of the Asian countries — Pakistan, India, Indonesia and China — to inquire into the effects of the nuclear tests conducted by both Islamabad and New Delhi, as well as the repercussions of the Asian economic crisis at the time.
Singapore was a stop on our way from New Delhi to Jakarta. Sentosa island, which had apparently separated from Singapore due to ancient geological upheavals, was also a must-see. Singapore, at the time, was internationally reputed as the leader of the Asian Tigers while the tiny Sentosa, which had served as a British military headquarters during World War II, had become a world-famous tourist destination that hosted four million tourists a year and that boasts, among other things, underwater restaurants in the Indian Ocean.
On 12 June, this special Asiatic island, separated from Singapore’s main island by a short bridge, was the focus of the world press because this was the venue chosen for the summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean President Kim Jong-un. It was the “meeting in the clouds”, the “meeting impossible”. A year ago, anyone who so much as imagined such a summit would have been branded insane.
The substance of the meeting was much as I had suggested it would be in my previous articles. The summit went ahead despite the wars of words and the unusually intense diplomatic brinksmanship. There were other parties to thank for this in addition to officials in the US and North Korea. South Korea, Japan and, above all, China with its regional and international weight were instrumental, while the US and South Korean leaders worked to maximise gains and minimise risks.
Both leaders also had to deal with domestic fronts that posed their own types of threats. The Trump administration had the midterm congressional elections in mind and did not want the Republicans to lose their majority. Within the Republican Party, itself, Trump had to preserve his “base” which had given him the edge over his Republican rivals and then over his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
He was simultaneously haunted by personal scandals from the past and the ongoing investigations into the Russian connection with his electoral win. He needed victories both at home and abroad. At home, he could boast the economic recovery and tax reductions. Abroad, he knew that the Middle East was no place to score a success, at least in the short run. Eastern Asia was another matter. There was opportunity there.
As for Kim Jong-un on the other side of the Pacific, he faced a society that had been nurtured on the refrain that the US was the great devil and South Korea its pawn, and that had been inculcated with the belief that hereditary rule was a pillar of the natural order. Meanwhile, the country remained gripped by severe economic straits.
The only way out was for North Korea to emerge from its isolation, even among “socialist” states, and board the capitalist train along with China and Vietnam.
The “Sentosa” summit was one of those summits that altered the course of history. It began with what we might call a “Sadat moment”, that historic moment in which the Egyptian president set a new course for dealing with Israel, enabling both sides to recognise the legitimacy of the other and the other’s legitimate interests.
In this case, the US would recognise not the existence of North Korea, as it already exists and is recognised by many countries in the world, but the fact that it is a part of the regional and international security environment. Washington would also recognise that the Jong-un regime is not a US concern but rather a concern of the Korean people in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea, for its part, would recognise that the US is a great power and, as such, that it has political, economic and strategic interests in East Asia. Foremost among these interests is the security of South Korea and Japan, which necessitates an ongoing US military presence in the region for the foreseeable future.
Following mutual acceptance there would remain a long list of pending issues that the two sides had to negotiate. But, first, they would have to establish a set of general, governing principles, before delving into the details. As occurred in Camp David, which set the framework for Egyptian-Israeli negotiations in 1978, the joint statement issued by Trump and Jong-un set the general framework for the historic deal between Washington and Pyongyang.
According to this framework, the latter relinquished its nuclear ambitions and the means to produce nuclear weapons, while the former ceased joint military exercises with South Korea.
The denuclearisation of North Korea was couched in the framework of rendering the whole of the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons. South Korea would not have the right to produce nuclear arms even if it has the industrial capacities to do so, and the US would not have the right to station tactical or strategic nuclear weapons on the peninsula.
Nothing in the statement prevents the US from stationing forces in South Korea or from maintaining a military presence in the nearby seas. Nevertheless, according to the second point, the US would be prohibited from taking any offensive action against North Korea. Henceforward, Washington would consider Pyongyang a friend and strike regime change from its agenda.
Having agreed on the essence, the two sides will now have to hammer out the many details. As we know from Middle Eastern experiences, the denuclearisation of North Korea will require precise knowledge of what facilities exist and, also, what might remain hidden. All this will need to be subject to international inspections and verifications.
However, given that the framework of the agreement covers the whole of the Korean Peninsula, we are also looking at a comprehensive peace that will finally resolve the Korean War (1950-1953). So far, it looks like the German reunification experience cannot be repeated in the Korean Peninsula, at least in the foreseeable future.
However, South Korea has learned that, if there is to be an end of conflict and buffer zones bristling with arms, the south cannot stay rich while the north stays poor. So, at least the process has opened the doors to a form of close cooperation between two Koreas with different types of political regimes but within the framework of a single economic order.
Details were left out from the joint statement deliberately. Details were not a priority at this stage. The priorities were to settle the major issues, to set the compass and to pave the way for communications and future exchanges of visits between Washington and Pyongyang.
The upshot of all this is that North Korea has been given an opportunity for economic growth, South Korea has been given the opportunity to sustain its prosperity and economic progress, and Japan has been given the hope of an end to the fear of a nuclear or even conventional war.
As for Beijing, President Jong-un not only flew to Singapore on a Chinese plane, China’s regional and international interests were on board with him.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Singapore summit