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68 years versus ‘one minute’
A North Korean military official talks about the North and South Koreans' military standoff. Photo:

Sixty-eight years ago, the Korean People’s Army under Kim Il Sung’s command began to gather their forces around the 38th parallel north, also known as latitude 38° N on June 12, 1950. After 13 days of secret military action, the Korean War broke out.

The war lasted for three years and a half, inflicting heavy casualties on all sides involved. The People’s Volunteer Army lost 119,000 soldiers, while 33,600 Americans died. Over a million South and North Koreans got killed. Since the Berlin Blockade in 1948 heralded the Cold War, this was the first regional ‘hot war’ between the East and the West. China and the US met on the battleground with 15 countries including the UK. The former Soviet Union indirectly intervened through air cover and ammunition.

The war reframed the geopolitical layout in Northeast Asia and even the whole world, changing China’s course of history. For example, the Taiwan issue is a byproduct of the Korean War. It’s said that although the Cold War ended in 1989, the military standoff continued on the Korean Peninsula, raising the specter of a nuclear war. South Korea, the neighboring China, Japan and Russia are all deeply trapped. If the Middle East is called the world’s time-bomb, the Korean Peninsula must be the powder keg for the Asia Pacific region. The Korean nuclear issue is not only the biggest ‘legacy’ of the Cold War, but could also serve as the blasting fuse for another ‘hot war’.

Today, for the first time in history, an incumbent US president and the leader of North Korea have met and shook hands at the Capella Hotel, on the beautiful island of Sentosa in Singapore. Such an event was unimaginable even half a year ago when the two sides engaged in a war of words and traded nuclear threats. The unexpected turn of events in the past six months has been dizzying. The Trump-Kim summit was also surrounded by uncertainty, with threats of cancellation or postponement. Such incidents are rare in the history of international diplomatic relations, and have kept a multitude of observers and media guessing.

It’s obvious the Trump-Kim summit has a high degree of symbolism, although the world cares more about its substantial results. Trump had threatened to politely walk out of the meeting if his expectations were not met. He also put forward the “one minute” theory, saying in the first minute, he will find out if Kim is sincere about denuclearization, or it would be a waste of both sides’ time. All of that caused further suspense and unpredictability about the summit, especially as it closely followed the G7 summit which had ended in disarray.

Some positive signals came one day before the meeting. After his subordinates met with the US deputies that afternoon, Kim seemed in a good mood and travelled in a high-profile way from the St. Regis Hotel where he stayed to some scenic spots including the Gardens by the Bay, Golden Sands Resort and Merlion Park, not avoiding people on the streets. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed even more optimistic, predicting that the summit would be a success. The top US diplomat also indicated the US is ready to offer “unique” security guarantees in a bid for Kim to abandon his weapons without fear.

At 9 am on June 12, the North Korean leader born in the 1980s and the American president in his early 70s finally met and shook hands in front of over 2,000 reporters and countless video cameras that live broadcast the event to the whole world. People saw that it was Trump who reached out with his hand. The body language of the two leaders demonstrated their warmth to each other. The critical first ‘one minute’ passed while smiles on their faces did not fade away. Later, the two leaders had their one-on-one meeting and an extended bilateral meeting as planned.

A dramatic scene of Trump storming off the meeting did not happen. So, it is justifiable to be optimistic. It’s hoped the Cold War comes to an end here, and the peninsula separated by hatred could finally be transformed into a land of peace and prosperity.

The chasm developed over 68 years could not be bridged in one minute. There has been hatred, distrust, geopolitical confrontation and disputes, besides ‘shadows’ of interested parties - South Korea, China, Russia and even Japan. All of the countries have their own interests and standpoints in the complex North Korean nuclear issue. We should see this meeting as the beginning of dialogues between the US and North Korea, and among all concerned parties; we should not expect it to be the end.

Even if there is a solid agreement or a grand communique, this could hardly mean everything would be ok from now on, because over the past 68 years, or even over the past one year or one month, we’ve witnessed too much backtracking on agreements or promises. So, we should wish for the best while preparing for all kinds of twists, turns and setbacks.  


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