One must be cautious before jumping to conclusions. It would be hasty to compare today’s scene in Singapore to the Richard Nixon’s visit to China and his historic handshake with Mao Zedong that changed the international scene at the time.
One must be cautious because memories of a sea of blood still weigh heavily on Washington’s ties with Pyongyang. The war that was launched in 1950 by Kim Il-Sung, the grandfather and inspiration of the current leader, led to the death of 3 million Koreans, 37,000 Americans and over 200,000 Chinese recruits.
One must be cautious because today is about Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. Two men who are similar in their ability to steal the spotlight and make unpredictable decisions, but are also different in everything else. Two men who come from contradictory worlds and different generations. Kim was born in 1983 when Trump was already 37 years old. They followed completely different paths. Trump emerged from the ballot boxes, while Kim emerged from the sole ruling party, that of his grandfather and father. Trump is addicted to Twitter and Kim is addicted to rockets. The former inherits the miracle of American progress, while the latter inherits the miracle of Korean endurance.
Two men who are alike in their ability to kick up a storm. Over the years, Kim burdened the world as he smiled broadly over a nuclear test or unveiled a new generation of rockets, especially those capable of reaching American soil. He struck panic in neighboring countries with surprises that exhausted their governments, generals and markets. His provocations deepened his regime’s isolation and burdened countries that are not even his enemies. Neighboring China grew tired of him and friendship with him was like holding a bomb with one’s bare hands.
Trump is also an expert in launching storms. Starting from the illegal immigrants file, the wall with Mexico, climate deals, relocating the US embassy to Jerusalem and reaching the current trade war. He has adopted a completely new language to address friends and enemies alike. The world hangs on his every tweet. His style has struck fear in NATO, the European Union and G7, where he made a series of explosives stances before making his exit. He treats the world as if it needs to be restructured. He is obsessed with his “America First” slogan and sees himself adept at the “art of the deal” and at stirring calm waters.
The US president has vast privileges, while decision-making is made at the White House. Trump does not seem too keen however on offices and institutions where these decisions are made. His aides often wake up to a difficult tweet that these institutions are forced to spend the rest of their day clarifying and amending and whose consequences they have to contain. Furthermore, he is a president who does not take too kindly to passive figures. He prefers people to show unconditional loyalty. But America is not North Korea. Its president does not know tomorrow’s headlines before going to sleep. He cannot amend these headlines or eliminate its editors. He has to abide by the constitution, legal system, Congress and investigation committees.
Kim’s privileges, meanwhile, have no boundaries. His will is binding and unquestionable. His country has no room for two opinions or two rulers. It marches to the tune of one player, otherwise it will be swallowed whole by enemies. National dignity is more important than bread. The hungry are prohibited from begging or even growing hungry His aides, generals, party officials and citizens have one job and that is to praise the decisions of a man who is infallible.
His grandfather is the ideal and inspiration. He rules the country from his grave. His some 35,000 statues adorn the country. He still casts his shadow despite his death. He engineered a system of rule that is able to infiltrate imaginations and dreams. His image covers school books. The laws of physics and chemistry bend to his genius.
He was admired by the leaders of progressive Middle Eastern republics. They admired his ability to bend people to his will and teach school students songs of love to the leader and his party. They learned from him and emulated some of his achievements, including rockets and propping themselves up with a chemical weapons arsenal, as well as yearning for the nuclear dream.
One cannot predict the post-handshake phase between two men who have an exceptional ability to spring surprises on the world. But today’s handshake in Singapore will be historic indeed.Ghassan Charbel
Since the beginning of the year, Kim leaned towards a truce. Some believed that his entry to the nuclear club gave him a guarantee that allowed him to open a window. Some believe that the rewards of the handshake will definitely exceed the rewards of nuclear blackmail. It is hard to explain his current behavior. One cannot be completely sure that he knows about the West and the changes in the world. He may have earned his education in Switzerland under a false identity and occasionally claimed to be the son of the driver that drove him to school, but living in Switzerland for years does not however mean that he knows the world.
Confusing behavior by a mysterious man. Did he fear the ongoing isolation and sanctions? Did he fear that his country will break under the weight of hunger and economic failure? Did he learn from the Chinese experience that he can keep Mao’s mausoleum without keeping his failed economic policies? Is he prepared to abandon his nuclear pillow in exchange for a binding American vow not to invade his country? Can his regime withstand the flow of investors, ideas and contact with the outside world?
One cannot predict the post-handshake phase between two men who have an exceptional ability to spring surprises and launch storms. But today’s handshake in Singapore will be historic indeed. It will at any rate benefit both sides. Trump, who pulled out of the “bad” nuclear deal with Iran, can claim that he is not an advocate of wars or confrontations. He does not hesitate when peace is a possibility. He shakes the hand of those who traded insults with him. Kim can say that he has the audacity to shake the hand of the master of the White House and for deneuclearization to be on the negotiations table.
Two men who are adept at stealing the spotlight. The world will avidly watch today’s scene. The question remains: What will Iran’s supreme leader say? It is likely that Barack Obama will not be happy today.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Ghassan Charbel is the Editor-in-Chief of London-based Al Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. Ghassan’s Twitter handle is @GhasanCharbel.