With the historic summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, now merely hours away, the sense of anticipation and excitement is palpable.
“Excitement [is] in the air!” tweeted US President Donald Trump Monday morning after arriving in Singapore for his summit meeting with Korean premier Kim Jong-un, and this is one Trump statement the accuracy of which I am happy to be able to confirm.
With the historic summit between the US president and Supreme Leader of North Korea (I believe that is his official title) Kim Jong-un, now merely hours away, the sense of anticipation and excitement is palpable.
So is the sense of pride among Singaporeans for being chosen to host this potentially world changing meeting, and the city state has put on its best face to welcome both leaders to the summit, described by Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Monday as "the most significant security operation" that the island nation has seen.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has already met with Kim on Sunday and with Trump on Monday.
Whatever comes of the summit, the event is already a historic one: this will be the first ever meeting between sitting US and North Korean leaders.
Expectations for the summit are sky-high and rising with every passing hour. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has fueled optimism by suggesting to media in Singapore that the US would be prepared to offer unprecedented concessions to North Korea in order to make the summit a success.
“We are prepared to take actions that will provide [North Korea] sufficient certainty that they can be comfortable denuclearization isn't something that ends badly for them,” Pompeo told reporters at a press conference, adding that the security assurances on the table would be “unique” and “different to what America has been willing to provide previously.”
What can we expect from Tuesday’s summit? Both leaders are consummate showmen and more concerned with projecting success to their respective audiences than with a substantive or meaningful agreement.
In one crucial way, the summit is already a success for Kim. Meeting Trump face to face as an equal, without pre-conditions, is itself a public relations coup for the North Korean leader who craves respect and wishes to show that he is a major player that the world needs to take seriously.
He has already achieved this, and even if the summit were to break up with no agreement or advancement on the issues, Kim returns to Pyongyang with his reputation and stature enhanced.
Trump, by contrast, by agreeing to the summit, has left himself vulnerable. To walk away without any kind of a deal would surely be construed as a defeat for him, which means that he is under pressure to come to an agreement, never the best negotiating position.
The author of “The Art of the Deal” prides himself on his powers of negotiation, but even his legendary deal-making skills might be taxed by the disadvantage at which he has already put himself and is operating under with respect to his opposite number.
Compounding the danger is that in one crucial respect both Kim and Trump want the same thing, and the fear even his advisers have is that in order to close the deal, Trump will concede points that are not important to him but could have devastating consequences for the security of the region.
The key goal for the US is the denuclearization of North Korea. The key goal for North Korea, even more important than the lifting of sanctions and normalization of trade and other relations, is the withdrawal of US armed forces from the Korean peninsula.
Significantly, Trump has on numerous occasions suggested that he resents US allies getting what he considers a free ride when it comes to being able to rely on the US military for security.
In short, on this issue, Trump and Kim are not so far apart, something that is deeply worrying for the US security establishment, which sees the US presence in South Korea as vital to American interests to contain China, to say nothing of the disquiet that such a prospect engenders among US allies in the region.
This point has been made eloquently on the op-ed pages of this newspaper by the veteran political analyst Forrest Cookson, and remains the biggest single concern among expert onlookers.
As security analyst Fred Kaplan has written in Slate: “It’s a delicate balance, coming up with a deal that takes down North Korean nukes without shattering the alliance that has maintained stability and US interests in the region. It might have been better if the idea of this summit had never come up. But it did, it’s happening, and, among the more realistic scenarios, the best one is that not much comes of it.”
That may indeed be the best case scenario. But with both parties keen to save face and have something to show for this historic summit, it remains a long shot.
The weather in Singapore on Monday was stunning. Blue skies and bright sunlight bathed the island nation, as the summit participants prepared for their big day in balmy 90 degree temperatures, mirroring the sunny optimism in advance of the summit.
The weather forecast for today, by contrast, predicts thundery showers over much of Singapore. Let us hope that it is not a harbinger of how the summit proceeds once Trump and Kim finally meet face to face.