Illustration: Liu Rui (Photo: Global Times)
The unprecedented US-North Korean summit finally took place in Singapore with some initial success. When we are busy with predicting the future, it is necessary to ask why the summit did not take place in the last three decades after the Cold War. Answering this question would help identify both the opportunities and challenges ahead after the Trump-Kim summit.
US President Donald Trump deserves the biggest applause for the very occurrence of the summit.
This unconventional US president has proved to be courageous enough to break the long-standing perception - "dialogue with North Korea is useless" - in US political, intellectual and media establishments. This perception that North Korea would collapse and should collapse has been deeply embedded like almost a religious belief.
There has been a bipartisan consensus in the US for decades. For the Democrats, North Korea has been mainly perceived as a typically rough state in the new US foreign policy that lays more emphasis on human rights and democracy after the Cold War. Talking with North Korea is basically regarded as politically incorrect behavior and the democratic presidents would not risk being perceived negatively by sitting with the North Korean leader in this political atmosphere.
For the Republicans, North Korea's nuclear development has been mainly considered a direct challenge to US hegemony and talking with Pyongyang has been largely perceived as showing US weakness. When North Korea was categorized as one of the axis of evil in 2002, the prevailing political atmosphere among the Republicans sought to force Pyongyang to surrender by punishing it. The previous US presidents who grew up in the conventional political establishment proved to be incapable and unwilling to risk their political reputation and career to have a summit with North Korean leaders.
As a businessman-turned president, Trump's unconventional path to the presidency and unique style of doing things make him less fearful and less restrained. His brave decision to meet Kim is an important first step to change the US domestic political and intellectual climate of dealing with North Korea. This meeting points to a major change in the intellectual basis of US foreign policy toward North Korea. It seems to have changed to "respect and talks" from the previous "crime and punishment" approach. This is an encouraging sign for facilitating diplomatic efforts to replace the "punishment" mind-set.
However, we need to be clear that this change is mainly driven by Trump's personal push. US domestic politics would definitely intrude into US-North Korean negotiations to follow. Deeply-embedded ideological biases combined with entrenched interests in US political, media and intellectual establishments would oppose the new thinking and the fresh approach.
In his press conference immediately after the summit on Tuesday, we witnessed that Trump was grilled about compromising US values and reckless appeasement of North Korea by holding the meeting. He is going to come under more domestic pressure. In this sense, the international community is obliged to help him show his achievements to silence domestic opponents. In particular, China will play a crucial role to facilitate the timely cooperation between North Korea and the US. China is also well-positioned to help North Korea and the US perceive each other in a more balanced way as Beijing has accumulated rich experience in dealing with the US.
The better the results delivered, the more confident Trump would be in keeping up the momentum of the direct talks with North Korea. Over time, a new consensus in the US that "Dialogue with North Korea works" will emerge and there would be more leeway in the US' decision-making space toward Pyongyang. An innovation in strategic thinking will follow and in turn stimulate reciprocity from North Korea. A virtuous circle of reciprocity will promote trust and create a favorable environment for permanent peace on the peninsula.