Francesco Mancini is the Associate Dean, Co-Director, and Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, as well as an Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. New Europe’s Federico Grandesso spoke in an exclusive interview with Mancini about the upcoming meeting in Singapore between US President Donald J. Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un.
NE: First of all, why do you think Singapore was selected as the best location for the summit?
Singapore is truly a natural location for what we can call so-far the “summit of the century.” It is a friendly nation across the globe. It has had diplomatic ties with North Korea since 1975 and good relations with both the US and China. Singapore would not be a home turf for Kim, as opposed to anywhere near the DMZ, but he will still be in a friendly country.
North Korea has an embassy in Singapore’s central business district, which can help with the elaborate logistical and protocol requests that will be part of the summit. It is also an ideal venue for the US as it is a large trading partner, the second-largest Asian investor and a long-time supporter of US military presence in the region. Its prime minister, Lee, has already been received at Trump’s White House. The Asian city-state can guarantee excellent security at the summit, due to the efficiency of its security forces and territorial control.
Also, Singapore is closer than Europe for North Korea and allows for Kim’s private jet to reach the summit without having to refuel, and is not near the US, which means that Kim does not have to travel a longer distance than Trump. Finally, Singapore already has experience in hosting unprecedented summits. In 2015, it hosted a meeting between China’s Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, the first time the leaders met since 1949.
NE: Who is going to benefit the most from this summit?
I see already two clear winners. One is Singapore, as the host. It has put the country in the global news cycle and since this summit is more an event than an actual summit, Singapore has received a huge press exposure. News outlets are in Singapore for 4-5 days broadcasting their news from here, like they would do during the Olympics or a World Cup. That is quite extraordinary.
Whatever happens after the summit, everybody will remember that the famous handshake happened in Singapore. The second obvious winner, even before going into the meeting, is Kim. He has managed to achieve three goals at once. First, he is not a pariah leader anymore. He has secured a summit with the US president, he has travelled to China and was visited by the Russians. He has basically legitimized North Korea as a nuclear state. And third, he has successfully loosened the grip on sanctions.
As for Trump, he has secured a photo op of the century, even if nothing comes out of it. Not
coincidentally, the handshake should happen around 9 am Singapore time, primetime in the US.
NE: What do you see coming out of the discussions?
My expectation is that not much substance will be discussed at the summit. Trump might propose to move toward peace, not a full peace treaty (which requires US Senate approval and is politically difficult right now), but a pacification of the relations between the US and North Korea. He might even invite Kim to Mar-a-Lago to continue the conversation. But the details will not be there. These will be left to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former spy chief Kim Yong-chol to sort out.
A long process is probably ahead.
NE: How do you see the position of China in this regard?
The fact is this is a long process that plays in favour of China. Today, the US may outshine China, but China will be the winner. A declaration of an agreement to end the Korean War is something that will undermine the rationale of keeping American troops in the Korean Peninsula. China’s position will be much stronger in the future, while the US will be weaker.
China will become the key guarantor for North Korea, as well as an economic investor. China has so far played their hand beautifully and will be able to play, but with far larger strategic consequences. The real loser here is Japan, who risks being left out of the whole process. Trump has indicated that he is likely going to insist that Kim give up his ICBMs, but not shorter range weaponry. A fact that remains a key issue for Japan.
NE: Can we hope for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula in the future?
Regarding de-nuclearisation, I think CVID is pretty much off the table now. Kim has no reason to give up his nuclear capacity and reason to. It remains his ace in the hole when he needs it. He might commit to a process toward no proliferation and no ICBM capability, which might be enough to get some economic help that he so desperately needs.
Trump might be happy enough with getting rid of IBMs, because he’ll look like he ensured the safety of US territory and I don’t think he cares about anything else. Again, it will be up to Pompeo to follow up on and to develop a plan for disarmament, and in this long process, China will, again, be a key influence due to its long-term strategy. In other words, the US and North Korea will have to start to playing the game of strategic reassurance. Credible assurance means both sides would have to forego their strategy of threat escalation. China and South Korea end up being key to this assurance game.