My guess back in late March when President Trump made the off-the-wall-ish comments tying progress in the renegotiation of the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement and talks with North Korea was that he realized that he and South Korean President Moon Jae-in were not aligned in their goals for dealing with Pyongyang. Plenty of people have been pointing that out since the Korea Shock of March 8. None better than here, dated March 23.
But the accounts in the New York Times and Washington Post today make it clear that Trump has been foolish or fooled by others or just not paying attention. And Robert Kelly summarized the state of play in a series of tweets that began:
Thoughts on Moon’s meeting with Trump tomorrow: 1) It increasingly looks like the Moon administration overstated North Korea’s willingness to deal. Moon will probably get an earful over that.
— Robert E Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) May 21, 2018
Of course, books have been written about Trump’s incompetence and he has practically boasted about not dealing with the experts at hand in Washington on Korea matters. No matter the reason, the meaning is clear: his meeting on Tuesday with Moon is far more important than previously thought. One plausible outcome: that Trump will cancel the summit with Kim Jong Un and strain the U.S. relationship with South Korea. (As if things couldn’t get more absurd, it turns out a cancellation would mean the waste of souvenir coins the White House has already ordered.)
In the past few days, we’ve seen some serious disconnection between media coverage and the discussion by Korea watchers on Twitter. And we’ve seen some thought-provoking commentary that nonetheless is still missing the point.
The biggest disconnection happened on Thursday, May 17, when Trump, riffing to reporters after North Korea grabbed the narrative, seemed to both offer a carrot to Kim Jong Un and threaten him at the same time. The commentators focused on the threat and Trump’s poor-verging-on-incoherent grasp of the matter, while the media the carrot. This made it one of the most interesting moments of the whole Korea Shock period.
One greatly-retweeted observation came from MIT political scientist Vipin Narang:
This video is so much worse than everyone thinks. It’s not even a threat. It’s just total incoherence. https://t.co/xA0hkUmEil
— Vipin Narang (@NarangVipin) May 17, 2018
A Wall Street Journal account said Trump “had conflated” Libya 2003 and 2011, but no one else in the big media pointed out that he seemed very confused. He was even mixing up Syria and Libya. On Friday, in what appeared to be an effort by Washington to signal to Pyongyang and South Koreans out of the know that the U.S. was trying to keep the summit on track, the Journal reported that the U.S. had canceled a B-52 exercise in South Korea last week.
But here we are several days later and all the stories are coming that Trump is just getting up to speed on the prospect that Kim Jong Un isn’t really talking about denuclearization. Or as the Post’s Anna Fifield put it in a tweet on Sunday U.S. time:
Trump administration official on North Korea: “It doesn’t look like they want to denuclearize at all.”
— Anna Fifield (@annafifield) May 20, 2018
Anna today produced a story that said South Koreans are blaming John Bolton’s remarks on Sunday TV talk shows May 13 for the North Korea threat that came two days later to cancel the summit. But that’s another example of the disconnect between the conversation transpiring among experts on social media and the one in the media. In focusing on Bolton, the South Koreans are again downplaying the differences that have existed from the start between their ideas and the Trump administration’s ideas about how diplomacy ought to unfold with North Korea.
If Trump and Moon don’t unpack and try to settle those differences in Washington on Tuesday, they will just be wasting more time and setting themselves for more difficulties down the road.
On the commentary front in recent days, the one that said the most new was surely James Clapper’s piece on the New York Times on Sunday. At the heart of it is his revelation that he privately counseled President Obama that the baseline U.S. position on North Korea needed to change. Key passage:
“As director of national intelligence under President Barack Obama, I was careful not to advocate specific policies in National Security Council meetings. But I told President Obama in private that our stance on North Korea was flawed. Our policy was never to discuss what the United States might do for the North Korean government until it first agreed to give up its nuclear ambitions. That was a dead end, I told him, and merely ensured that no progress would be made.”
He suggested that the U.S. offer a peace treaty, a liaison office in Pyongyang of the type that it had in Havana for many years and, eventually, a road map for withdrawing U.S. forces from South Korea. “Both sides are stuck on a narrative,” he wrote, “and only the bigger partner can change it.” But Clapper overlooked a key part of North Korea’s narrative, specifically the Kim regime’s desire to exert more control over South Korea.
Jeffery Lewis, the highly quotable nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, had the second-most important op-ed over the weekend with this piece in the Washington Post that, at the right moment, said what all the skeptics have been thinking from the start: dealmaker Trump is completely out of his depth on this North Korea stuff. Lewis recalls the Obama administration blowing a chance to deal with North Korea in early 2012. Key excerpt:
Washington is repeating that mistake, telling Trump what he wants to hear instead of what the North Koreans are saying. White House officials continue to claim that North Korea, under the crushing weight of maximum pressure and cowed by threats on Twitter, is offering to abandon its nuclear weapons and open its doors to American investment. That’s nuts. What Kim wants is something different: recognition.
While Lewis is right about that, he also avoids the topic of Kim’s intentions and long-term goals for the North’s relationship with South Korea. One of the best possible outcomes of a Trump-Kim summit would be for Trump to get Kim to discuss his view of the future. That understanding is needed to base the imaginative compromise that Clapper and Lewis would like to see the U.S. put on the table.
One final note: in the flurry of news late last week and commentary over the weekend, it may have been easy to miss the best newspaper feature about North Korea this year. It was the Wall Street Journal’s account by Alastair Gale and Tom Wright of one of a North Korean man who lived in Malaysia, where he raised money for the regime and was behind the assassination of Kim Jong Nam.