By Professor Tommy Koh: Trump-Kim summit in Singapore: From brink of war to peace

June 16, 2018

America was attacked by terrorists on 11 September 2001. It caused a paradigm change in United States foreign and security policy. The new priority was to fight terrorism and its sponsors. In his famous address to the US Congress, on 29 January 2002, President George W Bush named Iran, Iraq and North Korea as forming the “Axis of Evil”. Bush accused them of sponsoring terrorism and seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

The President of Iraq, Sadam Hussin, was overthrown and killed. The leaders of North Korea feared that they were on the US list for regime change. They decided that in order to protect their regime they must develop a capacity to deter a US attack. In other words, they must develop nuclear weapons and ballistic weapons capable of striking the US.  A year later, in 2003 - North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In 2006, it conducted its first underground nuclear test. The desire to develop a first-strike nuclear capability to protect its own regime - this is the logic behind North Korea’s seemingly reckless behaviour and ratcheting up of its nuclear weapons programme. Once it has achieved this objective, North Korea’s agenda was to seek a summit with the US President. It was prepared to give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in exchange for what it wanted from the US.

And this week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the grandson of founder Kim Il Sung, who was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il, did exactly that.


Peace Initiatives

Despite its reputation as a backward, even rogue state, North Korea in fact has demonstrated remarkable diplomatic skills. Consider the Winter Olympic Games in February in South Korea. North Korea sent a delegation to participate in the games. Chairman Kim sent his sister Kim Yo Jong to represent him at the opening ceremony. She visited President Moon Jae-in, in Seoul and conveyed a message that Chairman Kim would like to hold a summit with President Moon Jae-in, at Panmunjom.


The Kim-Moon Summits

The first summit between President Moon and Chairman Kim was held on 25 April 2018 at Panmunjom. Following the summit, the two leaders adopted the Panmunjom Declaration.

 The Declaration stated that the two countries will bring about the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula, and will replace the armistice agreement that ended the 1950-1953 Korean war with a peace treaty. 

South Korea sent its envoys to convey Chairman Kim’s message to US President Donald Trump and to persuade him to hold a summit with Chairman Kim. President Trump agreed to do so without the usual pre-conditions.

President Trump sent the then-director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, to Pyongyang, to see Chairman Kim and to verify his sincerity. As a gesture of goodwill, Kim released the three US hostages detained in North Korea. When Pompeo became the Secretary of State, he would hold a second meeting with Kim in Pyongyang.

The two sides agreed to hold a summit on 12 June in Singapore. However, when North Korea attacked Vice-President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser, John Bolton, for comparing North Korea to Libya, President Trump cancelled the summit. To rescue the situation, Chairman Kim sought a second summit with President Moon on 26 May 2018, in Panmunjom. Chairman Kim requested President Moon to convey to President Trump, his commitment to denuclearise the Korean peninsula and his “fixed will” to meet with President Trump. President Trump agreed to reinstate the summit on 12 June in Singapore.


The Trump-Kim Summit in Singapore

It was against such an on-off-on backdrop that the summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim was held on June 12 at the Capella hotel in Sentosa. 

The meetings were successful, concluding with smiling photo opportunities and a ceremony where both leaders signed a Joint Statement before leaving Singapore. Chairman Kim called on PM Lee Hsien Loong and took a night tour of Singapore. President Trump was hosted to lunch by PM Lee at the Istana. For three days, 10 to 12 June, the eyes of the world were on Singapore.


Some Reflections

Was the summit a success? 

First, I want to address the issue of the cost of hosting the summit. Some Singaporeans have asked me whether it was justifiable to spend $20 million to hold the summit.

 My answer is an emphatic yes. The publicity and goodwill generated were worth more than $20 million. Already, several marketing agencies have estimated that the cost of publicity from the event over those three days alone would be worth at least 10 times the amount.

Reuters reported: “Andrew Darling, CEO and founder of communications agency West Pier Ventures, said it would cost more than S$200 million to generate the kind of publicity Singapore has received so far by hosting the summit. 

“Media intelligence firm Meltwater said the coverage over the three days around the summit equated to $270 million of advertising, while the month leading up to it was worth $767 million. “

 But the benefits for Singapore are not just financial in nature. It has enhanced our reputation as a safe, secure, efficient and beautiful city. It has vindicated our diplomacy. It has reinforced our growing reputation as the Geneva of the East. 

Singaporeans should remember that we are a very small country. What has kept us on the international map is our ambition to be relevant and useful to the world. By hosting the summit, we are being useful to the world and helping the cause of peace.

Second, many people are sceptical that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Is Chairman Kim sincere or is he trying to deceive the world? What is the quid pro quo? What did he get in return? The truth is that he is indeed getting quite a lot: recognition of the Kim regime as the legitimate government of North Korea and Trump’s commitment to provide security guarantees to North Korea, and the prospect of sanctions ending at a later stage. A peace treaty is also possible. Mr Trump also promised during the press conference after the signing ceremony, that there would be a stop to the war games carried out annually by America and South Korea.

Did the US give away too much, as critics suggest?

Well, President Trump has gained the following benefits: the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”, meaning that North Korea is prepared to give up all of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and the recovery of the remains of prisoners of war and those missing in action from the war. Mr Trump also disclosed that Chairman Kim had agreed to the destruction of nuclear test sites and the site for the testing of rocket engines.

Which side gave away more? 

To be honest, it is hard to do a balance sheet accounting at this point, when too little is known, the hard negotiations have not yet taken place, and the world does not know if either of the two mercurial leaders will honour their signed and verbal pledges.

Instead, the world should celebrate the fact that the Trump-Kim summit has taken place as well as its outcome. We should remember that, a year ago, the two nuclear-armed countries were on the brink of going to war.

Even six months ago, the leaders of the two countries were exchanging threats and insults. It is, of course, true that the Joint Statement has to be implemented by subsequent agreements. There is therefore a lot of work to be done in the months ahead. 

We should nevertheless salute President Trump and Chairman Kim for changing the course of world history: moving the world from a war scenario to a peace scenario. We should also salute President Moon Jae-in for the indispensable role he has played to make the summit a reality. 

I wish to conclude by hoping that Chairman Kim will do for his country what Deng Xiaoping did for China. Perhaps his brief visit to Singapore has shown him what a future North Korea could look like.


The Tembusu (Fagraea fragrans) is a large evergreen tree in the family Gentianaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia. Its trunk is dark brown, with deeply fissured bark, looking somewhat like a bittergourd. It grows in an irregular shape from 10 to 25m high. Its leaves are light green and oval in shape. Its yellowish flowers have a distinct fragrance and the fruits of the tree are bitter tasting red berries, which are eaten by birds and fruit bats.