Friday, June 1, 2018

President Stradivarius and the two Kims


SO MUCH FOR “fire and fury.” Goodbye to “a campaign of maximum pressure.” Adios, apparently,  to “a menace that threatens our world.”

That’s the language that animated the House Trump relationship with Kim Jong Un and the hermit kingdom of North Korea as far back as January, at President* Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address, and as recently as last August. Now? Meh. Not so much.

Why? Because it’s all different now. The summit between Trump and Kim, once set for June 12 in Singapore, then canceled, is back on again. But what’s been positioned as a meeting that Pyongyang desperately wants will be anything but. The denuclearization issue that was a tripwire for the United States is now, amazingly, not such a big damn deal after all. Such is an object lesson in the risks of improvisational diplomacy at the hands of Donald Trump.

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In a June 1 grip-&-grin from the Oval Office, Kim Yong Chol, spy chief and the warden king of a North Korean gulag thought to hold as many as 200,000 North Koreans, was welcomed at the White House, huddling with Trump in a long meeting in the Oval. He presented Trump with a letter from Kim Jong Un — a message inside a comically oversize envelope, the kind of thing they use to hold the winning check in the Publishers Clearing House ads on TV.

It was Kim Jong Un’s opening gambit, an overture that Trump will be hard pressed to regard in antagonistic terms.

Trump made a mid-course correction on Friday in terms of his new expectations for the June 12 summit — he’s calling it “a getting-to-know-you meeting, plus,” whatever the hell that means — but it’s a shame he didn’t do that in March, when the summit idea first surfaced. If he had, he’d have more credibility on the issue than he does now.

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AS IT STANDS, Trump’s doing more or less exactly what he’s accused his Oval Office predecessors of doing: slow-walking the process of diplomacy with Pyongyang. It’s what a CNN analyst on June 1 called “a carrot-and-stick approach,” with the current negotiation being the carrot — negotiation that will certainly include Trump soft-pedaling on sensitive issues like human rights, a guaranteed nonstarter with Pyongyang.

Which makes sense since the rhetorical sticks of the past — Trump’s “fire and fury” gibberish, his cheap “Rocket Man” taunt at the United Nations — didn’t get anywhere.

For his trouble, Kim Jong Un acquires instant credibility. And leverage: The issue of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula — one of the main reasons for the summit, and something Trump and his minions have tried to hammer home for months — may not even be on the table in Singapore.

The meeting that Trump now characterizes in anodyne terms comes just eight days after it was previously canceled. (Which is curious in itself: Eight days ago Trump announced plans to “terminate” the June 12 summit date. Isn’t it strange that in the eight days since then, nothing else emerged in Trump’s presumably busy schedule to fill that June 12 date? It’s like time was standing still, just waiting for the summit to be back on again — in exactly the same time and place as before, with nothing in the Trump schedule intervening in the meantime ...)

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All this lurching from lane to lane points to the way Trump apparently intends to do business. On CNN, political analyst Ron Brownstein got it right: “The controlling dynamic to the president’s approach to diplomacy is volatility.” And that’s not just true for diplomacy, it’s been just as true for Trump’s approach to domestic politics, campaign politics, and congressional politics.

So when one willfully volatile leader faces off with another, it’s foolish to expect a smooth glide path at the negotiating table. The two Koreas have been in conflict for more than 60 years. Anyone who thinks the differences between them will be magically erased in one or two shiny, happy Kum Ba Yah moments needs an intervention.

When he walked away from the summit before, Trump was playing to his base in crafting a rationale for that meeting being canceled, waving the flag and rattling sabers in equal measure. But months of bluster and bellicose tweets scarcely concealed an administration on the back foot when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell understands. “You have to not want the deal too much,” he said on Friday, at an event in his home state of Kentucky. “If you fall in love with the deal, and it’s too important for you [not] to get it, and the details become less significant ... you could get snookered.”

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THE TWO KIMS may be wondering if Trump can be taken seriously. The two Kims may also wonder how seriously Trump takes himself.

Jon B. Wolfsthal, a former senior White House official and scholar at the Carnegie Institute, grasped the situation in a May 24 piece for Politico after the summit was first scuttled: “Don’t be fooled. Trump wants the meeting as badly as ever, and will jump at the chance to reschedule if and when the time suits him.

“For the past six months, Trump has been reacting to events both in North and South Korea and as a result, North Korea’s position has greatly improved at the expense of the United States. Now, by canceling the long-anticipated summit, Trump is trying to play hard to get with Kim, claiming that the meeting was ‘requested by North Korea’ but cannot take place ‘at this time.’


“Trump tried to recapture the initiative by accepting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s offer to meet face to face in March but since then has lost control of the narrative. Instead of putting the U.S. back into the driver’s seat, Trump has spent the past two months building expectations for the summit to an unsupportable level.”

And Trump’s game of hard-to-get got no traction from Kim, once he saw how Trump walked away from the Iran deal. The North Korean leader may well have asked himself how much credibility he could possibly give to any deal brokered by the United States vis-à-vis North and South Korea, when the United States walked away from another, not dissimilar nonproliferation deal with Iran.

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Fast forward to now. The two Kims may be asking themselves: What confidence can Pyongyang have that Trump and the United States would stick to any deal they struck when the United States walked away from the Iran agreement — especially given Trump’s ability to short-circuit his own intentions  with counter-productive rants in the Twitterverse?

There’s no glide path to any of this. “One step forward, two steps back” would be a charitable motion scenario; it’s more likely to be one step forward, one step sideways — lateral motion being exactly the kind of stasis that’s defined diplomacy over the Koreas for decades. That stasis will be amplified by an American leader who regards uncertainty as an asset. Someone who’s discovering he’s got no monopoly on that kind of thinking.

That may be why Trump used the word “process” several times talking to the media on Friday — a concession to the fact that diplomatically navigating the two Koreas will not be a slam-dunk affair, or a moment, or an event. As such, it’ll be a process that Trump will surely get tired of, be frustrated by, get angry with ... and we all know what he does when he gets like that.

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TRUMP’S PREVIOUS jibes about using military strikes and applying “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang are off the table, and Kim Jong Un knows it. Trump has put himself and the United States in a box. Our own wannabe maximum leader is a prisoner of his own nonsense rhetoric. He’s elevated Kim to the level of statesman, one who’s playing the president of the United States like a violin. This just mere months after President Stradivarius described Kim as no better than Satan’s deputy on earth.

Trump’s rhetorical mood swings are the problem; he needs to seek a middle descriptive ground for the North Korean leader. He can’t keep shuttling between vilification and veneration ... unless, of course, that’s intentional. And what responsible president* would do that?

At the State of the Union, in January, Trump memorably said that, vis-à-vis North Korea, “past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation.” What a difference the last six months apparently makes.

What should be just as interesting, and more important, is the difference Trump’s statements on Friday will make over the next 10 days. Once he decides what the hell he plans to say.

Image credits: Trump and Kim Yong Chol: The White House/Shelagh Craighead. Trump at 2018 SOTU: The Washington Post. Politico logo: © 2018 Politico LLC. Twitter logo: © 2018 Twitter.

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