Minds Meet and Greet.
The pageantry had arrived. As had the drama. The on again, off again unlikely scenario of a meeting between two of the world's most controversial men has come true. On June 12, US President Donald Trump finally met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Sentosa Island in Singapore.
Beyond extensive press briefings, multiple pats on the back, photo opportunities and handshakes, there was little substantive about the five-hour long visit. Initially hyped to discuss pressing issues of nuclear disarmament, the talks ended in just vague pledges. It appeared that Trump gave more than what he should have though not entirely unexpected. Announcing an end to military exercises with South Korea and a "providing security guarantee" to North Korea, Trump failed to secure any concrete and tangible concessions from Kim. The document signed showed that the North Korean leader "reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula". This pledge is not any different than what Kim promised the South Koreans in April. Nor is it any different to what he has time and again guaranteed to the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and even more frequently broken or violated.
Trump's meeting with Kim doesn't only signify a weakness of the United States part but also a dangerous meeting of minds - an arrogant, apathetic and isolated leader meeting with one of the most brutal dictators who has been responsible for thousands of deaths of his own citizens. What is clear is that Trump is bent on creating history without any concern for the consequences. In the lead up to the meeting Trump claimed that he could "solve a big problem, a big dilemma" while working with Kim. Almost bordering on admiration, Trump seemed to be beaming during the talks and his body language suggested friendliness, warmth and cordiality. Even Kim appeared to acknowledge the surreality of the meeting when one of his translators was overheard as saying, "Many people in the world will think of this as a form of fantasy... from a science fiction movie."
What failed to come up, however, was the brutality of the Kim regime and its grave human rights violations. Having previously described the North Korean regime as a "cruel dictatorship" and Kim a "depraved character", Trump took great pains to avoid burning questions from reporters stating instead that "I believe it's a rough situation over there. It's rough in a lot of places by the way, not just there."
'Rough' doesn't quite begin to explain the numerous crimes against humanity conducted by the Kim regime. North Korea today is amongst the most brutal human rights violators in the world. The United Nations estimates that close to 120,000 inmates lived in one of the four political prisons in North Korea in 2014. A ruthless police state, North Korea stamps out debate and dissent and anyone accused of having committed political crimes can be sentenced to prison without a fair trial and their families kept in the dark for decades. Prisoners are starved, tortured and raped. Reproductive rights are denied through forced abortions. Hundreds of prisoners have died in these camps. Kim's modus operandi has been executions - it is after all how he consolidated his power after assuming it from his father. The Institute for National Security Strategy estimates that in the first six years of his rule, Kim executed at least 340 people.
The regime does not only manage a police state but works as an indoctrination machine, taking root from childhood to instill allegiance to an official personality cult and demand absolute obedience to the state. Space for dissent, critical thinking and argumentative skills are clamped and replaced by propaganda glorifying Kim while vilifying enemies such as South Korea, Japan and the United States.
The reaction globally has been largely of support. Having met Kim earlier this year, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said "the two Koreas and US will write new history of peace and co-operation" though the exact meaning of what Trump has said and promised needs to be vetted more thoroughly. China - North Korea's only diplomatic and economic partner - said that "new history" had been created. Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe praised Trump's leadership and North Korea's pledge on denuclearization as "a step towards the comprehensive resolution of issues around North Korea." Russia, however, seemed to be on the fence, warning that "the devil is in the detail" while Iran too warned North Korea to not trust the US, especially on nuclear deals.
On the US side, the response to the Singapore Summit has been varied. Most policymakers and analysts have struggled to make sense of what Trump and Kim actually signed. A vaguely worded document shows North Korea's commitment to denuclearization but what that truly entails remains a mystery. It is not different than previous promises Kim has made over the past 30 years and later reneged, every single time. While Trump dramatically described the document as a "very comprehensive" agreement, critics disagree. The simple wording of 'denuclearization' fails to capture and fulfil Washington's long-standing goal of 'complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea's nuclear arsenal.' Many believe that Trump made greater concessions in return for vague and small gains. Perhaps this was most detrimental to America's Asian dynamics and Trump's guarantee to end all joint military exercises with South Korea while talks with North Korea were underway.
There is no long-term gain for the US to place historic allies on the backburner while struggling to appease a repressive dictator. Whether this is a 'historic moment' meant for good or bad is debatable. What is certain though is that Trump remains frozen in a tunnel vision that is likely to hurt the US in the long-run.