What to make of Tuesday’s meeting in Singapore between US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un?
As is to be expected when Trump does anything at all, two camps immediately spring into action. On the Trump train, his every gesture is indicative of a coming golden age, in which we’ll all play golf, wear red hats, and listen to Kanye West.
And in the world according to CNN and the BBC, we lurch one more step toward Armageddon, hunkering down for the apocalypse and praying for American economic disaster, families suffering in poverty being a small price to pay for hauling DJT out of office and replacing him with anyone-you-like-it-doesn’t-matter.
At any given moment either of these camps might hit on something and be worth paying attention to. Or they could be peddling fakery. Or they might just be shouting at each other.
I was Trump-skeptic, but never considered him to be a harbinger of the end-times, so I hope I can be objective, and in that case I’d say that while Trump ultra-fanatics are not living in the real world, the anti-Trump liberal contingent has gone completely off the deep end, and can’t be trusted to report on his actions in anything resembling good faith.
And so almost everything that occurred at the historic summit can be spun two ways.
The optics were magnificent, US and North Korean Flags sharing colours and representing to the entire world the beginning of a new era of peace and cooperation.
Or alternatively, it was glitz, smoke and mirrors. A photo-op for a pair of narcissists (one a fully qualified murderous tyrant) to claim historic glory and win favour with their respective domestic audiences.
The terms of their agreement were non-specific and open-ended, allowing space for discussion that didn’t previously exist. A first step toward something profound.
Or, if you were the other way inclined, the agreement was vague and insubstantial. Just part of the spectacle that looked good but solidified nothing.
Trump’s praise for Kim was realpolitik in action. The necessary diplomatic buttering up required to bring a recalcitrant and unpredictable despot to the table.
Or, perhaps, it was an act of normalisation that failed to address the grotesque human rights abuses occurring right now in North Korea under Kim’s regime, allowing him to present himself as a respectable leader.
Where does the reality lie? Take your pick.
What’s certainly true though, is that while North Korea is fresh ground, none of the factors involved are new or unique to Trump. He’s not the first American president to put on a show, or to flatter a tyrant. And he’s not the first American president to strike deals.
Does he do it more ostentatiously than others? Sure.
Does he do it better? We’ll have to wait and see.
Just anecdotally, I got an idea of the general feeling here in Tokyo about the summit. Japan is well used to North Korea’s belligerence and violations. Across the water from the rogue state, Pyongyang’s test missiles have crashed over Hokkaido and into the ocean, and citizens have been abducted from Japanese soil and held captive by the dishonest and aggressive regime.
The sense I get from residents in the Japanese capital is one of restrained skepticism. That more detail and substance were necessary from the start, because while Trump may be new to dealing with Pyongyang, its neighbours in Asia certainly aren’t. And that North Korea cannot be trusted for a second, and might change direction or do something contrary to good relations without warning.
There is, in particular, disappointment that no mention was made of the Japanese abductees. This is a major issue here, and a quietly burning sense of injustice and sadness sometimes becomes perceptible when the subject is raised. Certainly, Japanese people are not going to smilingly embrace the hand-shaking, Rodman-friendly version of North Korea being presented before the cameras, when the abduction of Japanese people, snatched from their families, remains unresolved.
At the same time though, there’s a pragmatic recognition that anything is better than nothing. That tensions have certainly deescalated from just a few months ago, when the national broadcaster, NHK, actually sent out an incoming missile warning, thinking it could have been real.
The common recognition is that while Trump might not be particularly liked (or particularly disliked, for that matter), nonetheless, what’s happening now is a significant improvement on the situation under Barack Obama. Many Japanese are of the opinion that Obama handled North Korea badly. That he was too passive, lacked ideas or interest, and did nothing in particular, allowing the situation to worsen.
While Obama promised hope and change, Trump has positioned himself as the man to deliver it. Whether or not that’s going to happen depends on who you ask.