American President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un are preparing for an unprecedented summit, on June 12 at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island in our very own, sunny Singapore. The meeting has been fraught with international drama, leading many to wonder if it will happen at all. Previously, President Trump has called off the meeting, citing Chairman Kim’s belligerence, while the North Koreans are still concerned about the bellicose rhetoric emerging from the American side, particularly in comments made about comparing North Korea to other military targets. Ironically, the Trump-Kim Singapore summit is happening at what seems to be the climax of a long history of rapidly escalating antagonistic rhetoric emerging from the two leaders.
For the uninitiated, the feud between Trump and Kim is not without its own geopolitical baggage. The roots of conflict trace back to the Cold War: America aggressively supported “democratic” and free regimes around the world which North Korea decisively opposed. Korea was split into the North and South in 1945 by separate regimes with radically different political ideologies – supported by the Communist Soviet Republic and the Democratic West respectively. Both sides claimed legitimate governance over the whole of the peninsula. The inevitable consequence was a war starting in 1950 through 1953. Under the umbrella of the United Nations, American boots touched the ground in an attempt to prevent South Korea from being overrun – a fact that North Korea still remembers.
Since the War, the armistice that ended the conflict in 1953 left the two nations permanently divided and technically still at war. Since then, developments on the Korean Peninsula have been fraught with constant tension. The South began to rapidly modernize and industrialize through a growing flow of trade on the international market. The North, on the other hand, became a hermit kingdom owing to Kim II Sung’s theory of self-reliance or Juche in Korean, which called for economic self-reliance and military autonomy. Nevertheless, the North struggled to develop and modernize, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, which was their biggest economic and political backer during the Cold War. Meanwhile, on the global stage, the West was busy ensuring that a nuclear war would not break out, leading to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entry into force in 1970.
When it became clear that North Korea was pursuing the militarization of nuclear material in the early 1990s, a flurry of attempts to broker compliance emerged. This included trading foreign aid/light-water reactors for denuclearization, multi-party talks with what seemed like concessions on both sides, and many threats, accusations, and promises. All these occurred with the backdrop of increasing certainty by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that North Korea was developing and testing nuclear weapons. From the 1990s to 2000s, North Korea and America continued their delicate and flirtatious hokey-pokey dance, and nobody really knew who was in and who was out.
Come Trump’s election in 2016, the relationship between America and North Korea arguably took a new and confusing turn. In early 2016, there were reports of North Korea having tested a hydrogen bomb, the most dangerous kind of nuclear weapon that mankind has ever invented. On his campaign trail, then presidential-nominee Trump promised a hardline policy to North Korean aggression, but also expressed what seemed like a begrudging respect for Kim’s leadership. Since then, the love-hate relationship has only grown stronger, and bizarrely enough, with North Korea testing long-range missiles (because nukes are useless if you can only explode them in your own country), Trump responded with threats of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” – to which, Kim happily accused Trump of being a “mentally deranged US dotard”. While the rest of the world watches on in a mixture of fear, horror, confusion, and amusement, some cannot help but think and wonder if the two took any pleasure in the exchange of words.
Perhaps the history books will, at some point, record that it was the fear of a “mentally deranged US dotard” (from the North Korean point of view) that urged the North Korean leadership into a denouement with their long-time Cold War enemy and neighbour, South Korea. But at this point, no one really knows. In April 2018, the long-standing Korean War has officially ended. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attempted to engage in the good old practice of shuttle diplomacy, but it was South Korea who managed to patch through the idea of a North Korea–United States summit. Out with Rex, in with Mike Pompeo. All of a sudden, the remote possibility of a summit actually happening started concretizing rapidly, and in the search for a suitable venue, Singapore emerged.
Some may recall the pivotal scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, when Barbossa’s motley crew travels to meet Captain Sao Feng in Singapore where East meets West. The bellicose but flirtatious, exaggerated but high-stakes rhetoric of the old pirate movie may perhaps hit too close to the truth than what many observers are comfortable with. Singapore, with its rich history of cultural interpolation – its status as a highly developed, safe and secure city-state, and its generally straight-talking, neutral stance in global politics makes it an ideal location for this potentially boisterous meeting.
Singapore has long prided itself on being excellently positioned for international arbitration. Singapore hosts a major international security forum every year, often hosts ASEAN summits, the 2009 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, and played an important role in negotiating the South China Sea disputes. However, this level of international spotlight is still unprecedented. The upcoming Trump-Kim summit propels Singapore into the ranks of Reykjavik and Oslo. The logistical and security demands of the meeting in an incredibly dense, highly-built up urban area will clearly be a big ask for the men and women in uniform. However, Singapore’s policy of National Service ensures that any additional manpower requirements can be quickly made-up for by drawing from its large pool of reserve forces. It is equally an opportunity for Singapore to demonstrate its unique capabilities at home to the watching world.
The actual results of the summit are uncertain at best, but political commentators are already wildly speculating about the various possible outcomes.
It is not Singapore’s role to step into the spotlight here, but to play the essential role of fading into an extremely neutral backdrop. This event will not change Singapore’s foreign policy so much as to establish the success of Singapore’s diplomatic efforts at home and abroad.
In an increasingly unstable and unpredictable global environment, Singapore’s commitment to being reliable and dependable has paid off. From a small island port at world’s end to the centre of the world’s spotlight, Singapore has come a long way.
But the very event that confirms Singapore’s diplomatic role could also irrevocably challenge it. The future of Singaporean diplomacy on the global stage appears more uncertain than before. Singapore has always acknowledged that it relies on the present rules-based world order to conduct its affairs – as this global environment changes, it stands to question whether we ought to remain the neutral backdrop or push for a more initiative, active role.
In any case, articles will be written, memes will be made, coins will be minted. People will claim they caught a glimpse of Kim’s limo or Trump’s distinctive orange tuft, perhaps a few restaurants will have a special menu, and life in sunny Singapore will go on.
Illustrated Cover by Charmaine Villamin of the DANAMIC Team. Photos courtesy (respectively) of Stijn Swinnen, Patryk Grądys, Andrew Pons, Hanson Lu, and Lily Banse.