The summit between US president Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on 12 June 2018 was the first meeting ever to take place between a leader of the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) and an incumbent US president. Hailed by North Korean state media as the "meeting of the century", the summit saw both leaders vow to establish "new relations" between Washington and Pyongyang. But how historically significant was the Trump-Kim summit and what did it really achieve? And can the two nations truly "leave the past behind"? Here, historian Kristina Spohr investigates…
Q: What is the historical significance of the Trump-Kim summit?
A: Since the accession to power of Kim Jong-il [Kim Jong-un’s father] in 1994, it has been Pyongyang’s goal to bring such a meeting about. A summit was seen as a valuable sign of international recognition from an American superpower with which North Korea has technically been in a state of war since 1950. Also, Washington has never officially recognized the DPRK as a sovereign state (even though Pyongyang, together with Seoul, was admitted to the UN in August 1991, at the end of the Cold War).
In this light, North Korean state media hailed the summit as the “meeting of the century,” which marked an end to “extreme, hostile relations” between the two states. They celebrated it as the culmination of proactive “peace-loving measures” by the Supreme leader and as international confirmation of Kim Jong-un’s emergence, following recent summits with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Moon Jae-in, as a statesman commanding global respect.
The Trump-Kim summit in Singapore was a massive media spectacle, with thousands of domestic and foreign journalists eager to get in on the act and huge crowds in the streets cheering and trying to catch sight of the pair. Trump’s U-turns on whether the summit would take place or not created additional hype.
Viewed against the background of summit diplomacy since 1945, the Kim-Trump summit was different in a number of respects. During the Cold War, meetings between allies aside, one talked about summits when referring to the tête-à-têtes between the leaders of the two antagonistic superpowers. These included encounters of Kennedy and Khrushchev (Vienna, 1961); Nixon-Brezhnev (Moscow, 1972); Carter-Brezhnev (Vienna, 1979); Reagan-Gorbachev (Geneva, Reykjavik, Moscow, Washington, 1985-8); Bush and Gorbachev (Malta, Washington, Helsinki, Moscow, 1989-91). But Beijing was also a significant venue for Cold War summitry. Nixon met Mao there in 1972; later, Bush and then Gorbachev parleyed with Deng Xiaoping in 1989.
In all these meetings there was a relative symmetry of power between the two sides that sat opposite each other. And there was a growing desire for substantive results: by de-othering the alien “other”, opening channels of communication, seeking rapprochement, limiting the nuclear arms race, opening trade between the command economies of the East and the capitalist West – in short, to engage despite ideological competition. The fear of a crisis igniting nuclear Armageddon was greater than the fear of talking with the enemy. As John F Kennedy declared in 1959, “it is far better that we meet at the summit than at the brink”.
As their nuclear arsenals mounted, superpower leaders wanted to stabilise the East-West conflict and diminish the confrontation between the ‘Big 2’ (later 3). Lengthy negotiations led to the signing of the strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT I) in Moscow in 1972; SALT II in Vienna in 1979; the Intermediate Forces Treaty (INF) in Washington in 1987; and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) in 1991. These agreements gave the USSR the international parity it craved.
Nixon’s talks with Mao served to draw Communist China out of its pariah status and bring it into the international fold. But for the president, playing the China-card served a larger strategic purpose: to put pressure on Moscow to engage seriously in détente. This, then, was clear triangular power politics.
By contrast, in Singapore last week what we witnessed was in no way comparable to these Cold War summits. The president of the United States was talking with the leader of a small communist state, a client of the USSR and a friend of the PRC. Kim – a ruthless dictator, with one of the worst human rights records in the world, long-time enemy of the USA, ridiculed by Trump only months ago as “little rocket man” whom he threated to shower with “fire and fury” – now cheerfully shaking hands as equals.
Being a nuclear power got Kim in this position – making him “summit-worthy” and putting him on a par with Trump. And the summit granted Kim the gift of the much-coveted international recognition that all US presidents before Trump had refused to bestow on a DPRK leader. And all this without a one bomb being dismantled or a single gram of fissile material given up.
But for all the “show”, there was little else to show for it. In the estimation of most observers, Singapore 2018 was like one big PR stunt of two men who each got what they wanted – the summit as a “reality show” in which they were the stars – with a plethora of images, words and awkward, even cringe-worthy, press statements. But in terms of concrete political yield, there was little new and even less of substance for the USA and the world.
This was tinsel diplomacy. And when the party is over the tinsel is taken off the tree, only bare branches remain.
From the outset, it was clear that it would be much harder for Trump to extract anything substantive in this asymmetrical meeting. For Kim, on the contrary, simply getting the summit was itself a huge success.
The White House had agreed to North Korea’s demand for parity in all aspects of the summit – from the number of US and North Korean flags side by side during the welcome to the number of officials present at the bilateral meetings. Kim wanted to be on a level footing with Trump – North Korea as an equal (nuclear) power with the USA, another boost to Kim’s legitimacy at home.
And Trump helped even more, when he told reporters before their first face-to-face session it was an “honour” to meet Kim, gushing “we will have a terrific relationship. I have no doubt”.
Trump and Kim shaking hands, smiling and apparently chatting so easily was visually a powerful moment. But it was chilling moment, too, because it gave legitimacy to the path Kim had taken to get to Singapore: building and testing illicit nuclear weapons while blatantly ignoring all international arms control frameworks as well as looking for any means to circumvent all sanction regimes.
In Singapore, Trump flatly stated: “It’s not a big deal to meet”. Considering the hype ahead of Singapore and given the history of summit talks, his banal declaration was largely bluster. For summits do matter; the world watches and takes note.
Taking note that Trump extracted no new or meaningful concessions to demonstrate Pyongyang was committed to denuclearization. Worse, to the surprise of his allies South Korea and Japan as well as his own military, he said would end joint US-South Korean exercises – to save money, “plus,” he added, “it’s very provocative”.
Japan, however, sees joint military exercises as “vital” to for Asian security; the US military considers them invaluable field training for 28,500 troops. Indeed, to the chagrin of Japan and South Korea, Trump even suggested he might “bring our soldiers back home” – thereby leaving a security vacuum in East-Asia.
Trump even used China and North Korea’s own rhetoric to criticise the “war games” – previously defended by the USA as essential for military readiness and effective deterrence. In all this, China is the chief beneficiary of America’s undermining of its own strategic posture by the “freeze-for-freeze arrangement” (freeze DPRK nukes/ freeze US military exercises). This was in fact what President Xi had hoped for and Trump delivered – for no apparent trade-off whatsoever.
Q: What is the significance of Singapore being chosen as the summit venue?
A: The meeting of two unpredictable leaders was expected to present serious security challenges. And for the media-show to proceed without a hitch.
In all these respects, Singapore could be deemed the perfect location suiting both Trump and Kim: a city-state that is safe and secure, with an immense amount of security infrastructure and a track record of hosting other high profile global events. What’s more, it is a cosmopolitan former British colony which embodies the concept ‘East meets West’.
But here is also a country with an authoritarian approach to law and order. Singapore boasts a sprawling police-state surveillance network, right down to harsh penalties for chewing gum, spitting and vandalism – not to mention little tolerance for protests.
All that worked in favour to make Singapore – in terms of practicalities and above all its optics – the “perfect” summit location for the two highly unusual protagonists involved.
As an agreeable bonus: Kim was granted a friendly audience with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who forked out $15 million to keep him accommodated in a luxury hotel and protected by dozens of security officers.
Q: Negotiations moved quickly – how does this compare to other summits through history?
A: Prior to the Singapore summit, there was a lot of frantic activity. There was a lot of hype that Trump’s personal rapport with Kim would bring the swift demise of the DPRK’s nuclear programme. After the talks in Singapore, however, it is not clear what exactly is going to be negotiated. And even less is it clear how anything will be achieved.
First, the American position is totally opaque. The State Department has been gutted of experts. And what will Secretary of State Mike Pompeo do next? What expertise will they tap into? What is America’s larger strategic goal in the short and long-term?
The post-summit communiqué of 12 June stated that North Korea “commits to work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”. But what does this “commitment” to “complete denuclearization” mean? There was neither a timeline nor any details of what steps Pyongyang would take next in giving up its nuclear weaponry.
Furthermore, if precedents are anything to go by, communiqués and accords mean little to Kim. The 2005 agreement signed between North Korea and the US, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea was much more specific and far-reaching. In fact, it committed Pyongyang “to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards”. Crucially, this agreement was not adhered to by the DPRK.
In Singapore Kim gave absolutely no indication that he is now seeking to abide by international conventions and arms control regimes, any more than in the past. There was no mention of North Korean nuclear missiles or of Trump’s long-standing red line: the supposedly non-negotiable demand that Pyongyang submit to complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. No promises were given that Kim would admit independent experts to verify the extent of their nuclear program and to monitor its destruction. The agreement is merely to think about agreeing at some undefined point in the future.
Trump had also declared before the summit that he would give Kim just “one shot at peace”. Now there is talk about mutual invitations to the White House and the North Korean capital – though there was no date set, or a location fixed for any follow-up meeting.
To be sure, the idea of opening up a process for future talks is in itself a positive thing. But the DPRK neither agreed to anything new, nor was there spelled out a clear trajectory for future action. In this way – leaving the issue of power asymmetry out of the picture – the Singapore summit cannot be compared to Moscow (1972), Geneva (1985) or Malta (1989) when leaders looked to establish a series of summits for sustained dialogue and to achieve substantive results.
Nixon, Reagan and Bush all pursued serial summitry with their Soviet counterparts. They wanted to ‘de-other’ the other and to create stability to ensure peace. They looked for a continued channel of communication and for substantive outcomes (in the political, economic, cultural and military domains). And certainly Reagan and Bush were determined to build a genuine relationship over time with Gorbachev.
It took Reagan and Gorbachev three years to sign the INF deal in 1987, and Bush and Gorbachev the same time to sign START in 1991.
Previous US presidents also stuck with their postwar allies. Trump in turn sowed seeds of uncertainty into long-term traditional postwar American alliances with South Korea and Japan. And in truth America paid a high price – by suggesting to the world, through the words and conduct of a US president, that Kim is on a par with the American superpower – with no guarantees for a more peaceful future.
Q: How important is personal chemistry between leaders when it comes to summits and their success?
A: As the summit began, Trump exclaimed that he expected a “terrific friendship”. When it ended, during his extraordinary freewheeling press conference, he announced that he had truly gotten know Kim and described their talks as “honest, direct, productive… in strong, strong circumstance” ready to start a “new history”.
He called Kim a “tough” leader and “talented guy”. The praise became increasingly surreal, with Trump continuing: “Anybody that takes over a situation like he did, at 26 years, and is able to run it, and run it tough – I don’t say he was nice or I don’t say anything about it – he ran it!”
The summit had obviously been an occasion of alpha-male bonding at the highest levels. But what Trump’s “friendship” with Kim bodes for the future is an unknown quantity.
When it came to substance, the intensely negotiated but rather skimpy summit communiqué was in fact a page-and-a-half of diplomatic language recycled from previous statements negotiated with the DPRK over the last two decades. Yet, ironically, for Trump, the bald document was almost beside the point. His main message being that he and his face-to-face with Kim had reduced tensions. His own brief statement was full of his usual platitudes while he spread praise lavishly all around. On Moon of South Korea (who is “working hard”); Abe of Japan (a “friend of mine”); Xi (a “very special person” and “great leader”). The next day, when Trump tweeted, it all became even more personal: “President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer – sleep well tonight”. It was, from Trump’s perspective, Trump and Trump alone who not only had become peacemaker overnight, but made the world a better place.
Let’s leave aside the Kim-Trump summit show for a moment and look at past leaders who were successful in international summitry and serious about it. What did they focus on, and what chemistry did they achieve?
In the crisis-ridden 1970s, West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt thought a lot about the importance of communication. He always sought contact through one-on-one discussions but he also liked small fora which facilitated direct dialogue and private, frank exchanges – keywords in his diplomatic lexicon. He also preferred informality over grandly staged media occasions. Summits, he believed, should not just allow leaders to trumpet their national positions; they should also encourage the working out of shared interests, compromises and projected common actions – irrespective of the quality of the personal relationships around the table. Leaders should use summits to work towards tangible outcomes, but not every summit by itself needed yield a result.
In Schmidt’s mind, building “trust” was important, especially with adversaries. To maintain predictability and to keep open communication channels when US-Soviet relations went into deep freeze in the early 1980s, Schmidt developed for himself the role of “double interpreter” between the two superpowers – trusted by both Reagan and Brezhnev.
“Trust” was also key for Reagan and Gorbachev. Their first meeting in November 1985 in Geneva established a real personal rapport – the beginnings of trust. But this was by no means easy to build. It’s not just a matter of 45 minutes chat and then you call each other “terrific friends”. Both Reagan and Gorbachev approached their first summit in a mood of uncertainty, struggling to decipher each other’s mixed signals. They were serious about their business, their position and each other. And they were ready to devote time and thought to the process of summitry.
Gorbachev initially perceived two Reagans – the would-be diplomatist and peacemaker in private correspondence and the strident ideological cold warrior on the public stage. Washington, meanwhile, started out by discerning a similarly split personality in Gorbachev. According to Jack Matlock (a Russianist on the National Security Council staff who prepped Reagan for the summit), Gorbachev could “lie and cheat” or “stonewall a negotiation”, but could also be “candid to a fault – grovelling in his nation’s inadequacies”.
Another concern was that testing out personalities at the summit had not always proved wise, as in the disastrous shouting-match between Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961. Kenneth Adelman, the director of Reagan’s disarmament agency, warned that summits were a “risky business at best” and had “clearly not helped moderate Soviet behaviour”.
Reagan and Gorbachev were very aware of how significant “trust” was for any viable international relationship – and certainly for one that sought to overcome decades of antagonism. In their multiple sessions they began to grasp each on a human level – and consciously so. In the summit photos of 1985 you see true bonhomie – no doubt it is performed for the cameras, but it is also real.
As Reagan later reflected in his memoirs, “there was chemistry between Gorbachev and me that produced something very close to a friendship”. This instinctive human bond they formed was essential to open up and smooth over superpower relations.
At the moment, the “friendship” between Kim and Trump is skin deep. Whether their human contact will prove productive, as in the case of Reagan and Gorbachev, remains to be seen. Will a few hours of conviviality in Singapore bring to an end decades of North Korea’s belligerent isolationism?
Q: The Trump-Kim summit has been heralded as “unprecedented”, but to what extent is this true?
A: A Kim-Trump meeting in June 2018 was unprecedented, but what it yielded was vague.
The summit talks between Gorbachev and Reagan in Geneva in November 1985 were equally their first encounter (though notably not the first Cold War superpower summit) and their meeting was hailed as an icebreaker in the ‘New Cold War’ of the early 1980s.
Reagan, who had previously damned the USSR as an “evil empire”, unexpectedly clicked with Gorbachev, the new reformist Soviet general secretary who was determined to make his country more competitive with the west. But it was also clear that their cosy fireside chat by Lake Geneva would have been inconceivable in previous Soviet-American summits.
When the two men parted with a handshake, Gorbachev exclaimed that it was like “a spark of electric mutual trust”. The two leaders hoped that this initial encounter would lead to formal accords curbing the nuclear arms race.
And they were desperate to maintain momentum. The Reykjavik summit the following year was difficult. They had bust ups, they disagreed. But they also dared to speak the unspeakable when – to the horror of their advisors – they talked about a nuclear-free world.
In the eyes of the world media Reykjavik ended in failure – “No Deal”, titled TIME magazine on the front cover. But the two leaders persisted and returned to the negotiating table the following year to sign the pivotal INF Treaty that led to the abolition a whole category of nuclear weapons. Summits are heady moments, as we saw again in Singapore.
It’s not easy for leaders to sustain momentum when they return to the lowlands of daily politics, where the bureaucrats regain control and where the leaders themselves need to prove their ability to persist outside the limelight if they want to achieve tangible results in the longer run.
Gorbachev and Reagan succeeded, as did Bush and Gorbachev – the first pairing driven by the desire for defusing the Cold War and making progress in arms control, the latter couple looking to end the Cold War peacefully and together build a new world order based on common values.
Whether Kim and Trump can develop a meaningful “political friendship” – or for that matter build any sustained relationship at all in order to identify common goals and propel world (or at least East-Asian) politics forward – is yet to be seen.
Q: Kim Jong-un says he and Trump have decided to “leave the past behind” – given the two nations’ shared history, is this really possible?
A: North Koreans have spent decades negotiating with the West and have clearly studied the Trump White House intensely. They were prepared for Singapore, and it showed.
Kim appeared to bring a much more historically informed perspective to the table than did Trump. For the US president – as was evident when he was reading out his statements – many of the words related to “history” appeared almost alien.
Trump lived for the moment, arriving in Singapore after a tough G7 meeting in Canada – which he had left seething, having received a dressing down from the other 6, not least the German chancellor Angela Merkel. Though as Trump hit back he singled out Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau, whom he referred to as “dishonest and weak”.
During his 24 hours in South-East Asia, President Trump behaved exactly like his depiction as “king-me” on the recent TIME magazine cover – seeing his regal reflection in the mirror. In front of the cameras Trump was totally fired up as he appeared on the stage, enjoying listening to own running commentary and lapping up the attention lavished on him.
One got the impression that for him, the summit was simply about Trump – “a great leader” as he sees himself among then other strongmen (Xi, Putin) – with Kim as his partner in peace.
How he sees the bigger picture, namely the future balance of power in the Pacific – after promising to end US-South Korean war-games and alluding to the end of the US military presence – is an open question.
Kim, in turn, has reached new heights in his reign: having joined the elusive nuclear club, being treated as an equal by the US, and negotiating from that position of new international status (sure of Chinese backing), while South Korea and Japan have been left hanging by the US president, looking like bit players.
Whether the words of Kim and Trump will be matched by deeds and what the repercussions of the summit are for the region and world politics cannot as yet be determined.
As Trump admitted himself when asked about the significance of the summit, he does not know. He may find at some point, he said, that he made the wrong decision coming to Singapore. But even if he did, he would not admit to it (or seek to make amends). “I’ll find some kind of excuse,” he quipped, and then focus on something else.
Q: The document signed by Trump and Kim Jong-un promises “new relations” between Washington and Pyongyang – what do you think will be the nature of this relationship?
A: The proof will be in the pudding. What Trump’s or Kim’s words are worth is anybody’s guess.
The summit was a big show – Trump acting more salesman than statesman. How the administration in Washington will be able to follow-up on what was discussed is totally uncertain – precisely because Trump cherishes chaos and prefers unpredictability above all else.
What we saw in Singapore was diplomatic pop-fizz.
As regards “new relations”, Trump claimed that with the summit he helped North Korean laborers – sheepishly adding: “Not much I can do right now, but at some point. I think they are one of the great winners today”.
And on human rights, Trump steered conversation away from North Korean gulags and political detainees to the matter of the remains of American servicemen missing in action and presumed dead from fighting during the Korean War in 1950–53. This was on Trump’s mind and in his mailbag. He said: “Human rights were discussed and will be discussed in the future… What was also discussed in great detail and I must have had countless calls and letters, they want the remains of their sons back. I asked for it today and I got it”. Though what exactly he got, we don’t know.
Just as quickly as we moved in the last few weeks from “little rocket man” vs “dotard” to bonding as “terrific friends”, we might find ourselves soon back again on the brink of war. The art of Trump’s deals is simple: there is no clear deal; there are no certainties, no firm commitments. There is only volatility. Everything, everyday is potentially open to a sudden change of heart.
Kristina Spohr is associate professor at the Department of International History at LSE. In 2018–19 she will be the inaugural Helmut Schmidt Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at SAIS – Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. Spohr is the author or co-editor of five books including Transcending the Cold War: Summits, Statecraft, and the Dissolution of Bipolarity in Europe, 1970–1990 (Oxford University Press, 2016).