Donald Trump-Kim Jon-un handshake can change history, but only time will tell

Wednesday March 18 2020

Handshakes can change the world. Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have changed the course of history and world politics; Kenyatta and Raila have changed us and the temperature of our national politics.

Trump and Kim’s “just-on-time” handshake left many war-mongers confused; it divided the dividers. So much hatred had been spread that nobody could foretell such a U-turn.

A good friend, who is a renowned journalist, explained to me that big press agencies live off tension. The more the tension the greater the income. Consciously or unconsciously, this has turned them into war machines, and anything that lowers the tension is viewed with suspicion.

So, let us look at these many handshakes that are taking place in our world. Some years ago, RealClearPolitics published a fantastic summary of historical handshakes. This has inspired me to look at some of them with the eyes of history.


History teaches us that political handshakes have had good, bad or irrelevant endings. A good ending started with the handshake of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev on November 19, 1985.

These two leaders shook hands and spoke in private for longer than it had been planned for and signed an agreement to substantially reduce their nuclear arsenal. Eventually, this handshake turned out to be the end of the USSR and the Cold War.

Another good ending happened after the handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in Washington, on September 13, 1993. Israel removed its troops from Palestine and lifted the exile imposed on Arafat. Peace lasted until Rabin was assassinated by extremists, driven by hatred and resentment, who saw in Rabin a traitor to the Jewish’s cause.

Not all handshakes have been good. A bad handshake took place in Bad Godesberg, in Germany, between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Germany’s Chancellor Adolf Hitler on September 22, 1938.

Chamberlain arrived in Britain some days later claiming to have made peace with Hitler. Chamberlain believed that giving Germany the Sudetenland would prevent a war. They had signed the Munich Agreement, which the Czechs and Slovaks call the Munich betrayal. Not only did Germany get the Sudetenland, but this also helped Hitler to gauge how naïve and scared the British prime minister was of facing a second war.


Another bad ending cropped up after the handshake between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, on June 3, 1961. After the celebrations were over, the building of the Berlin Wall commenced and the “relations between the US and the USSR became more strained, as both sides tested nuclear weapons, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.”

There have been quite a few irrelevant handshakes. Photos were taken, smiles were exchanged, but nothing changed after that.

For example, Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong’s handshake in February 1972. It was Nixon’s “landmark visit to the People's Republic of China.” There was a temporary détente in their relations but soon everything went back to business as usual.

The same happened to Obama’s meeting with Hugo Chavez and Jimmy Carter’s meeting with the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in December 1977.

When it comes to measuring the success or failure of handshakes, there is no clear pattern that can point us in a specific direction. It is difficult to say what would have happened if…because it did not actually happen.


But one thing seems clear, that no handshake usually ends with the suppression of one people by another; with a coerced handshake, which is more like pressing hard the hands of the defeated, not out of friendship, but often to humiliate and empty their pockets.

This is what happened in 1919 in Versailles, and more recently with the massacre of the 1956 Hungarian revolution by Russia’s communist regime, and in the 1989 US invasion of Panama, not to mention the Gulf War, where a timely handshake could have prevented many deaths.

History is unforgiving when judging handshakes. In a recent interview, Trump was asked by a journalist if the US-North Korea handshake had not been an act of cowardice and betrayal of all those thousands killed or the hundreds of thousands in gulags all over North Korea.

Trump answered well. He said that he thought the handshake “could prevent greater damage. It would actually help them and improve the situation for all.” He admitted that he might be wrong but he hoped he was right.

History will tell if the Trump-Kim handshake will be judged as good, bad or irrelevant. It all depends on the concrete actions both leaders take in the post-handshake, for the handshake is a means to an end and not the end itself.

The handshake is a necessary step to prevent total destruction, which is what a nuclear conflict would bring, killing all, the just and the innocent, the perpetrator and the victim.


I could be wrong, but I think the handshake is a breakthrough and will achieve unexpected levels of success. The reason is banal and perhaps simplistic. These two leaders are extravagant personalities that they need it to work.

For Trump and for Kim politics is a game, a play. The press is the stage, and the world is watching the play. They would be absolutely crazy if they did not make it work.

I believe they are not crazy. They are Machiavellian and extravagant, but also intelligent presidents. Moreover, Kim, who has the keys to make it a success, is young and he loves the good life. The idea of being a prisoner forever in his own country seems to be already taking a toll on him.

May the Trump-Kim handshake be a new beginning for South-East Asia. Tension has been building at their doorsteps for too long. However, the handshake cannot be (and it was not intended to be) an implicit recognition of the many injustices that have taken place in North Korea.

Now we cannot do much else but sit back and watch how events unfold. The jury is out, and history is unforgiving. A bad handshake makes the terrain fertile for greater injustices and open violence. If these two leaders fail to make it work, it will be better if they had never met at all.

Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi