Commentary: When Kim Met Trump

We do not usually write takeaways after our Feed events, as they tend to be small and follow Chatham House rules. However, the Trump-Kim Summit panel organised with 1880 was exceptional, with around 250 people attending and the conversation live-streamed on Facebook. It was a rare opportunity to gather a broad group of experts, several of whom had been long-term observers of Asia and of the Korean Peninsula in particular.

While many of us were still absorbing the implications of a vaguely-worded document that President Trump had signed with Kim Jong Un the day before, several of our panelists felt confident enough to strike an optimistic tone. Despite the broad language of the agreement, several argued that they expected things would move quicker than what most observers might expect, that there was more to the agreement than meets the eye. For instance, one cited the immediate repatriation of the remains of POWs and those MIA as a notably concrete item that the wider media had de-emphasized.

The ramifications of the events on 12 June will only be known in the years to come. However, the past week has generally validated the view amongst the panel of rapid progress. It now seems likely that the US will cease military exercises with South Korea, while Kim Jong Un has accepted an invitation from the US to visit. Beyond the individual ‘charisma’ of the leaders and their personalities, the panel acknowledged that events were driven more by fundamental changes in the geopolitical landscape - North Korea’s acquisition of capabilities to threaten the US with a nuclear attack and China’s stronger position in the region.

But while the Summit should not be seen as a result of ‘Great Man History’, the individuals involved did shape its dynamics. One panelist observed that Trump had taken a disruptive or “startup” approach to diplomacy, rushing out a “minimum viable product” in the form of the 12 June agreement. This “MVP” approach, a term more conventionally associated with the technology industry, squared with the image of Trump as deal-maker: his willingness to treat the engagement as a deal where both parties could win, rather than a zero-sum game, contrasted sharply with the traditional approach of creating clear, solid preconditions for negotiations, which made talks a non-starter.  The generational change in Korean leadership, of course, was also crucial in driving developments. Kim Jong Un’s experience studying in Switzerland perhaps encouraged him to seek international recognition -- though the panel and the audience had a lively debate on what the Supreme Leader’s personal motivations really were and the extent to which the North Korean establishment truly supported his attempts to build bridges with the US.

There was also lively debate on who the winners and losers were out of the Summit amongst the key national players. Not everyone felt comfortable with the way the Summit had developed, with audience members raising concerns over how US diplomacy would be perceived internationally, as well as the message this sent the world on how North Korea’s human rights record would be regarded. A number of panelists suggested that Singapore was a clear winner from this entire episode, having showcased its success to the US, North Korea and the world. The panelists also gave credit to President Moon for creative diplomacy leading up to June 12, which ultimately enabled a constructive engagement to take place with potentially significant economic and political progress in East Asia.

North Korea will be a potential theme that we will come back to in future events. More information and our mailing list at www.projectfeed.sg.

Yishan Lam