It had to be. Both participants desperately needed it. Donald Trump had to show some success somewhere. As for the 34-year-old Kim Jong Un, he craved fiercely to demonstrate to his patron in Beijing and rival in Seoul, to say nothing of Korea’s former rulers in Tokyo, that he now walks and talks and sups with kings.
He has shown himself to be the smarter of the two, not boasting on Twitter or rambling on at press conferences, spilling beans no one had heard of before. Unlike Trump who has made promises galore since the tête-à-tête, Kim is bound only by the vague wording of their joint statement which he can interpret as he likes, when he likes. That is how his country, arbitrary relic of World War II and the 1945 Potsdam conference when the Korean peninsula was divided along a line that made ‘no political, geographical, economic nor military sense’ (quoting the US State Department), has survived. In contrast, Trump needs constantly to boast to justify himself.
Trump had repudiated the Paris agreement on climate change, discarded the nuclear deal with Iran which was his predecessor’s achievement, not his, and insulted Canada’s personable young prime minister. He had flown out of Quebec City refusing to endorse the final section of the G7 statement about commerce. He couldn’t afford to fail in Sentosa, Singapore. Unlikely as it may sound, he also yearns for the Nobel Peace Prize. So the ‘Rocket Man’ whom he was going to destroy with “fire and fury” was miraculously transformed into an “honest and direct” leader whose “words can be trusted”, a “very talented man” who “loves his country very much”. They would meet “many times”. Trump would invite him to cosy fireside chats in the White House. Kim, who is striving to bring peace and prosperity to his country, would “very quickly” demolish his bombs.
Koreans are so concerned with the level of heads that they dragged out taller and taller stools at the 1953 Panmunjom talks in a scene that might have come straight out of the film Anna and the King. Possibly briefed on this obsession, the host, Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, who spent $20 million on the summit convinced it was investment in peace, made elaborate arrangements to ensure absolute parity. Trump and Kim drove to different entrances of Capella Hotel on Sentosa island, and then walked towards each other with measured steps and no question of precedence. They might have been in the ornate Durbar Court of London’s old India Office which the British designed for four Indian princes of equal rank to enter simultaneously.
International meetings are often imaginatively sited and choreographed. Nothing can beat the glitter of the Field of the Cloth of Gold where King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France talked, jousted, feasted and made love from 7 to 24 June 1520. The raft on the Niemen river where Napoleon I and Czar Alexander met on 25 June 1807 was no less dramatic. For the Trump-Kim summit some Americans would probably have preferred the poignancy of the railway siding in the forest of Compiègne, 40 miles north of Paris, where two trains came to a halt on 8 November 1918 in the utmost secrecy. One was the permanent home of the Allied commander-in-chief, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, whose guests aboard included Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Rosslyn Wemyss. From the other, formerly the imperial train of Emperor Napoleon III, shambled a tired and exhausted group of Germans led by Matthias Erzberger, a politician leading his country’s delegation.
Trump said in Singapore that it takes not the five seconds he had mentioned earlier but a mere second to size up the other party. Kim probably doesn’t need a meeting at all to get the other person’s measure. Trump calls him “a very smart negotiator”. He goes by the record
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As Erzberger and his party crossed the 100 metres to Foch’s dark-blue wagon-lit, the marshal leaned across to his interpreter and said: “Ask these gentlemen what they want.” Erzberger replied he had come to hear the Allied armistice proposals. “I have no proposals to make” was Foch’s reply. Count Alfred von Oberndorff, from the German foreign ministry, then said in French that his delegation was there to seek “the conditions for the Armistice”. Foch replied: “I have no conditions to offer.” Weary from their overnight journey through the front lines, the Germans realised that after four years and three months of the most horrendous war yet known to man, there were to be no negotiations. They were to grovel in humiliation and plead for an armistice. The victorious Allies would dictate the terms.
It wasn’t like that on Sentosa. Some Americans grumbled that Kim didn’t need to indulge in one-upmanship. Merely clasping the hand—only just recovering from Emmanuel Macron’s bruising grasp in Quebec City—that Trump extended is supposed to have sent Kim’s prestige soaring in the Asian world. Rudy Giuliani, New York’s former mayor, would have us believe Kim “got back on his hands and knees and begged” for the meeting. ‘Got back’ implies he had done so before, of which there is no evidence. With the blood of three generations of rulers coursing in his veins, the young Kim must be an astute student of mankind. Trump said on Sentosa that it takes not the five seconds he had mentioned earlier but a mere second to size up the other party. Kim probably doesn’t need a meeting at all to get the other person’s measure. Trump calls him “a very smart negotiator”. He goes by the record.
Donald Trump Jr’s globetrotting tours to sell flats, Ivanka Trump’s entrepreneurial appearances, reports that she and her husband Jared Kushner made at least $82 million in outside income while serving as senior White House advisers last year, told him all he needed to know. He may have promised the Trump Organisation carte blanche to dot North Korea with soaring glass and marble Trump Towers. He could also have promised unlimited outlets for American fast-food franchises. Profit is as integral as regime change to American diplomacy. George W Bush Jr told the Asia Society in Washington on the eve of his 2006 visit to India that the country’s fabled 300 million-strong middle class could spell prosperity for Whirlpool, Domino’s and Pizza Hut.
THE ARTIFICIAL PARADISE of Sentosa, meaning ‘peace and tranquility’ in Malay, highlights the tantalising contrasts of ‘the lands of charm and cruelty’, an American author’s sobriquet for Southeast Asia. The memory of one of the longest-serving political prisoners in the world haunts the resort. Chia Thye Poh was a Physics teacher who marched with 30 activists to Singapore’s Parliament House on 8 October 1966 to hand over a letter demanding a general election, the release of political detainees and revocation of ‘undemocratic’ laws. Chia could have bought his freedom at any time by promising to sever ties with the Communist Party and renouncing violence. But, as he argued, “to renounce violence is to imply you advocated violence before. If I had signed that statement I would not have lived in peace.” He was never charged, never brought to trial during more than 30 years of confinement, the prisoner in the theme park of Sentosa.
The island’s only redeeming feature for me was the life-sized figure of General Kodandera Subayya (Timmy) Thimayya in a tableau depicting Lord Mountbatten and his colleagues accepting Japan’s surrender. The actual ceremony was in Singapore’s City Hall, but the 27 waxworks are displayed in Sentosa’s Surrender Chamber. Commentators made much of the fact that the resort was chosen for the Trump-Kim meeting because the single road that serves for entry and exit can easily be secured. But I remember taking guests to Sentosa by cable car from Faber Peak where you can’t get taxis. Not that Trump and Kim either needed taxis or shared cable cars.
The Korean Armistice Agreement to ‘insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved’ was signed three years and 54,000 American casualties later in 1953
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Their rendezvous was the Capella Hotel, whose red tiles, pillars and portico create an illusion of colonial graciousness. Singapore is good at creating illusions. Waiters go round the famous Long Bar of the island’s other iconic hotel, Raffles, scattering peanut shells before opening time to create an illusion of the rough and ready clientele that once quaffed gallons of Singapore Sling and carpeted the floor with the residue of munched nuts. The setting encouraged Trump to masquerade as peacemaker. “Anyone can make war, but only the most courageous can make peace,” he intoned, unconsciously echoing Jawaharlal Nehru’s comment on the Korean War. “It’s always wrong to assume you can succeed by pursuing military means to the utmost and the last,” Nehru told the distinguished British writer, James Cameron, when North Korea invaded the South on 25 June 1950. “Every major war there’s ever been has shown that—the last one (meaning World War II) created plenty of problems just for that reason.”
Nehru was deeply conscious of the inconsistencies of his own position. “In India, now we have spent our lives trying very imperfectly to follow the spirit of a great leader,” he confided in Cameron whom he treated as a friend. “He talked of non-violence, and here we are now in charge of Government, and Government keeps armies and navies and air forces and indulges in violence pretty often. What do we do about it?” Nehru thought Americans more “hysterical as a people than almost any others except perhaps the Bengalis”. Americans called his ambassador in Peking, Sardar Kavalam Madhava Panikkar, ‘Mister Panicky’ for daring to relay Zhou Enlai’s warning that China would intervene if North Korea were attacked. Only the New York Times believed that the struggle for Asia ‘could be won or lost in the mind of one man—Jawaharlal Nehru’.
Cameron appreciated Nehru’s dilemma. Neither of the two Korean contestants, Kim Il-Sung and Syngman Rhee, did. Nor their principals in Moscow and Washington. Cameron, who covered the war, painted a grim picture of brutalities and bestialities on both sides. The Korean Armistice Agreement to ‘insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved’ was signed three years and 54,000 American casualties later, the North-South talks being trapped in testy issues such as the exchange of prisoners of war and the location of a demarcation line. Sixty-five years later, the Korean peninsula is still at war with some 30,000 American troops in South Korea in addition to the ‘permanent aircraft carrier’ of Guam, naval bases and seaborne troops dotted all over the Indo-Pacific region, and approximately 50,000 military personnel in Japan. North Korea and China are the obvious targets of the annual joint military exercises between the US and South Korea which the North denounces as ‘intentional military provocation’.
The terse 400-word statement the two leaders issued in Sentosa promised an end to belligerence. Trump will pull back his troops. The exercises will end. With his fans chanting ‘Nobel! Nobel! Nobel!’ he can reach for the peacemaker’s halo even if there are plenty of Golda Meirs around to mutter that what he really deserves is an Oscar. Kim will end testing and destroy his bombs and missiles. Watching from Beijing, China hopes the end of sanctions will lessen its financial burden in respect of North Korea. It was a relief that there was no sign of Trump trying to persuade Kim to do to China what Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, instigated by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, did to the Soviet Union. India, too, should look forward to Trump’s Indo-Pacific vision and to a denuclearised North Korea no longer having to enrich corrupt Pakistani generals and politicians with millions of illicit dollars for hi-tech secrets and equipment from the Pakistani scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan.
The four-point statement represents a triumph of faith over fact. The hint of promise without commitment recalls Talleyrand’s famous dictum which has been variously translated, one English rendering being ‘Language was invented so that people could conceal their thoughts from one another’. The document’s most explicit statement is ‘President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.’ What that entails will become known only when Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, and an as yet unnamed ‘relevant high-level’ North Korean official try to work out details.
Even then, we will not know the answer to young Peterkin’s questions ‘What they fought each other for’ and ‘What good came of it at last’ in Robert Southey’s poem After Blenheim, from which my opening line is taken. We must be content with Peterkin’s grandfather’s reiteration, ‘But ’twas a famous victory.’ Winning is all that matters.