BY ALVIN CHENG-HIN LIM
On June 12, 2018, the US and North Korean leaders Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un held a summiton Sentosa island in Singapore in which they committed to establishing a “new relationship” between their countries “in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity,” and “to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” To achieve this, Kim Jong-un committed “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” While some critics have noted that this was a broad statement of principles which “set no deadline and left the path to disarmament undefined,” the Sentosa agreement committed both governments to holding “follow-on negotiations … at the earliest possible date, to implement the outcomes.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who had himself met with Kim Jong-un twice in the run-up to the Singapore summit, has applauded the Sentosa agreement, describing it as “a historic event that has helped break down the last remaining cold war legacy on Earth.” The Chinese government, in the meantime, has recommended the easing of international sanctions against North Korea, in order to “support the current diplomatic dialogues and efforts in progressing towards denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” In addition, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted: “Today, that the two countries’ highest leaders can sit together and have equal talks, has important and positive meaning, and is creating a new history.”
Following his meeting with Kim Jong-un, Trump announced that he intends to “order an end to regular ‘war games’ the United States conducts with ally South Korea” — which have long been “an irritant to North Korea” — as he recognizes these as being “very provocative” and “inappropriate” given “the optimistic opening he sees with North Korea.” This announcement “came as a surprise to the South Korean government,” but Moon Jae-in’s office released a statement that they believe “it is crucial to pursue various solutions for better dialogue.”
Beyond the Sentosa agreement, what could potentially be significant about Kim Jong-un’s visit to Singapore is how it could mirror Deng Xiaoping’s pivotal 1978 Singapore visit. Kim’s visit to Singapore was not his debut on the international stage — the run-up to the Singapore summit saw Kim visiting China twice on highly-choreographed visits with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and also to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea for two brief but historic meetings with the South Korean President — but even so, his trip to Singapore was a major diplomatic event which received heavy coverage in the global news media, and his evening of sightseeing the day before the summit was greeted with cheers of excitement from the curious public. Indeed, the friendly reception from Singaporeans was highlighted in the glowing front-page report in the state-controlled North Korean Rodong Sinmun newspaper which included “no fewer than 14 images of his visit.” As observers noted, this was unusual as media reports in North Korea “generally do not show detailed images of affluent foreign countries.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un went on a surprise night-time tour of Singapore on June 11, 2018. Photo Credit: EPA.
Of special note in the North Korean state media reports were the statements that Kim Jong-un “was impressed by Singapore’s economic development and hoped he could learn from the country,” that he found Singapore “clean and beautiful,” and that “he had learned much about [Singapore]’s economic potential and how it had developed.” These statements echo similar sentiments made by China’s late Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping about Singapore. Following Deng’s 1978 visit to Singapore, the Chinese state media, which had hitherto denounced Singapore as a tool of Western imperialism, began instead to portray Singapore as “a garden city worth studying for its greening, public housing and tourism.” The following year Deng lauded the government of Singapore for attracting foreign investment for the purpose of national development (Lee, 2015, pp. 664-669).
In 1992 Deng Xiaoping set a challenge to his government: “There is good social order in Singapore. They govern the place with discipline. We should draw from their experience, and do even better than them.” Singapore’s late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew noted in his memoirs that following this challenge, “several hundred delegations … came from China, armed with tape recorders, video cameras and notebooks to learn from our experience” (Lee, 2015, p. 676, 714). In this important way, Singapore served as a model for Deng’s pivotal reform program which revolutionized China’s economy. As Deborah Brautigam (2009) notes: “At the start of the 1980s, China qualified as one of the world’s twenty least developed countries. The country’s annual per capita income of $208 placed it squarely between Mozambique and Burma” (p. 54). Today, China has the world’s second-largest economy, and is expected in the coming decade to surpass the US as the world’s largest economy.
Could Kim Jong-un be inspired to implement a similar economic reform program for North Korea? If he does, Singapore is well-prepared to help his government upgrade its human resources. The Singapore government’s Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP) has helped train over a hundred thousand officials from over 170 countries, including China, in a range of over 300 courses in fields including “port management, civil aviation and public governance,” as well as in “emerging issues such as sustainable development, cyber and food security, and social governance.” The SCP would be a key resource should Kim Jong-un seek to modernize the North Korean government and prepare it for the challenge of managing an open economy.