The Hope and Promise of the Singapore Summit

By Mark P. Barry

I usually tell people that if you visited Earth from Mars, looked down at the Korean Peninsula and saw it’s divided and technically in a state of war since 1950, you’d say, “This has got to end.”

In other words, this kind of situation is simply unsustainable, despite that many practitioners of international relations seem to believe it’s possible to manage conflicts in perpetuity.

Last Tuesday’s summit in Singapore between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is at least notable for one important thing: it potentially changed the trajectory — hopefully for the better in the long run — of events on the Korean peninsula. This is because no sitting American president had ever met a North Korean leader. Previous presidents generally would not even consider the idea; Bill Clinton was the exception, but in the waning weeks of his presidency, he chose to focus on Middle East peace rather than Korean peace.

Ironically, Jimmy Carter was the first former U.S. president to meet his North Korean counterpart, Kim Il Sung, in 1994. He wisely observed at the time that “we should not ever avoid direct talks, direct conversations, direct discussions and negotiations with the main person in a despised, misunderstood or condemned society who could actually resolve the issue.” To his credit, Carter brokered an agreement, concluded months later, that froze the North’s fledgling nuclear program — which endured until the early years of the Bush 43 administration.

This simple truth — of the need for top-to-top communication and relationship-building — was easily grasped by President Trump because it had been a key lesson of his years of business experience. Kim Jong Un knew he had to take advantage of the opportunity to meet the U.S. president — the one person who could make fundamental foreign policy decisions without the encumbrance of a bureaucracy with a long and deep institutional memory.

It matters less what were the motivations of Trump and Kim; in both cases they were a mixture of the strategic and the selfish. But history shows that key figures, sometimes with unsavory motives, nonetheless produce changes, however unintended, whose impact endures for decades or even centuries (e.g., Henry VIII’s disagreement with the Pope over marriage annulment led him to initiate the English Reformation, separating the Church of England from papal authority).

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