Substance over symbolism

As the world watched with fascination, United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shook hands in Singapore, making history as they did so.

The two men are the first sitting leaders of their countries to meet face to face.

Given the uncertainty of the meeting, the smiles and handshakes after the first initial uncomfortable posed photos indicate there is a bond formed between the two men.

There is no certainty the meeting will be the start of some historic moves, but at least it is a start.

Months previously, Messrs Trump and Kim increased the rhetoric, lambasting each other and comparing the sizes of their nuclear buttons. All-out war seemed the most likely scenario until both leaders dialled back the insults.

Whether Mr Kim realised the actual threat of another war on the Korean Peninsula, this time without the support of Russia and China, was likely will never be answered fully.

However, China's tougher line on trade sanctions was starving North Korea of vital overseas exchange, along with the threat of starving millions of North Koreans as food supplies dwindled.

Mr Trump believes his personal negotiating skills will convince Mr Kim to follow through on vague promises of denuclearisation by making him realise North Korea's best interests are served through trade and warmer relations with the West.

After storming out of the G7 meeting in Canada, leaving a trail of angst and bitter recriminations behind him, Mr Trump will need to pull back. He will need to not display his impetuous nature, instead using his negotiating skills to set a path to lasting peace on the peninsula.

And while there is great interest in ridding North Korea of its nuclear weapons, human rights also need addressing. Mr Kim is a ruthless dictator, not immune to killing off family members who displease him. An uncle and an aunt have disappeared from view, believed killed at Mr Kim's order.

Kim Jong-nam, his half brother, is also thought to have been killed on Mr Kim's instructions.

Millions of North Koreans are living at a subsistence level at best, starving at worst.

In addition to the about 100,000 individuals, including children and family members of the accused, who suffer in political prison camps, North Koreans face an almost complete denial of fundamental freedoms by their government. Those caught trying to flee this oppressive environment are often tortured or killed.

It was galling to watch Mr Kim tour the nightclubs of Singapore, enjoying the hospitality of the Singaporean Government, knowing many at home would not see their Dear Leader make history because they were suffering in gulags known as ''kwanliso'' in Korean, where detainees are subjected to forced labour, torture, starvation, rape and death.

Many people have so far pointed to a possible parallel to Richard Nixon's 1972 trip to China and his meeting with Chinese leader Mao Zedong, which produced a thaw between the two nations after two decades of hostile relations.

Mr Trump's decision to fly to Singapore was much less planned and it takes more than establishing diplomatic relations to complete the difficult task of denuclearisation.

The next few weeks will be critical. Most critics say the agreement signed by the two leaders promised much and delivered little.

Failure is not in the best interests of either. Mr Trump caught South Korea by surprise by halting joint military exercises and hinting he wants American soldiers to go home. More surprises are likely.

There was much symbolism during the summit. Handshakes and smiles set the tone but Mr Kim must show the world he is serious about not only halting his nuclear ambitions, but also improving the lot of his people.


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