The sun rises in Singapore 12 hours earlier than in Washington, DC and overnight the wires were buzzing with news coming out of the final preparatory meetings before the much-touted Singapore Summit.
President Trump and Kim Jong Un are scheduled to meet face to face on Tuesday morning — the first time any sitting U.S. President has been in the same country, much less the same room as any member of the Kim family.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters who made the trip that the summit may end earlier than expected due to forward movement in Monday’s negotiations. Pompeo said, “We are hopeful this summit will have the conditions for future productive talks”
Hopeful. It’s a loaded word.
Many have been hopeful in the past, most recently a decade ago when the U.S. and North Korea last sat down to talk. The world was also hopeful ahead of the ultimately failed agreements of 1994 and 2005 — the world has seen this movie before.
However, there are a few things that are markedly different this time around. The whole process has been different and the two personalities that will sit down across from each other on Tuesday are different. North Korea itself is a very different place.
The 2008 negotiations came just six months before Kim Jong Il had a debilitating stroke that would bring about the secession to the dynastic, communist throne of his son Kim Jong Un. Where the father was an introvert who only spoke in public once in 17 years, the son was educated in the West and makes a point to be seen among his people.
The North Korea that Kim Jong Un reigns over is not quite the Hermit Kingdom that it once was either. It is still cut off from the rest of the world but the rest of the world has still found its way in — slowly seeping in under the cover of darkness for decades. Recent defectors tell stories of watching South Korean soap operas and Chinese action films. They know there is something more out there than the dogmatic lines they’ve been sold their entire, miserable lives. And Kim knows that they know — a fact he cannot ignore if he wants to remain in power for the rest of his life. He is after all, a young man of 34 years.
Many Korea watchers and reporters, with inside sources and access to recent defectors, have also seen a change in the fundamental structures of North Korea’s communist central planning. Parts of North Korea have the underpinnings of a market economy, according to defectors that spoke to the Washington Post, saying “No one expects the government to provide things anymore. Everyone has to find their own way to survive.”
President Trump has offered Kim a carrot of genuine economic growth and it’s likely a carrot that Kim is considering very seriously. Though 1% of his people are currently keeping him in power, he made promises to the other 99%, that they would never have to tighten their belts again. Given the levels of starvation and malnutrition that exist among that 99%, this seems like a huge ask. Kim is less likely to agree to political changes and may still offer significant resistance on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula — also something the Chinese will have a huge say in from the shadows.
For those looking for a regime change, you are likely to be disappointed, but if you are open to the possibility that Kim may truly want a path to normalization — one that leaves him at the top of the food chain — then you might have room to hope.
Featured Image: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo answers questions during a press briefing Monday, June 11, 2018 in Singapore a day before President Donald Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. | AP Photo/Susan Walsh