All the media walk-ups, curtain-raising commentary, tweets, posturing by North Korea and President Trump sure made it seem like Trump’s meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday was going to be pivotal. After it happened, the air seemed to come out of the whole thing.
A day later, it’s unknown what happened in the meeting and the June 11 Trump-Kim remains uncertain. The South Koreans haven’t leaked. At the start of the meeting, Trump and Moon held forth for a few minutes in front of reporters and cameras, the moment when Trump allowed there’s a “very substantial chance” that things won’t work out for June 12, which became the headline for the day. “That doesn’t mean it won’t work out over a period of time. But it may not work out for June 12th,” Trump said. He tried to be non-chalant about it, saying, “Whatever it is, it is.” He tried to blame China for North Korea’s foot-dragging, but reporters didn’t dwell on that and Jeffrey Lewis and others took down that idea. You can read the White House transcript here.
The Washington Post got closest to figuring out what’s going on, reporting that an advance team is heading to Singapore this weekend expecting to meet one from North Korea to work on summit details but that the North Koreans didn’t show up there last week for similar prep work. While we all know the American strategy for dealing with North Korea is up in the air and it has been reported that Trump seems not to be doing much studying himself, it may just be that the North Koreans are also uncertain or fighting themselves over how to proceed. The Post says Kim is worried about a military coup while he’s away.
Robert Kelly at Busan National University called it:
— Robert E Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) May 22, 2018
Mainstream coverage of the Trump-Moon meeting fell away quickly. Only the Times still had it on its homepage on Tuesday evening, and it stuck with a story that was filled with analyst quotes from before the meeting, tacked with a top that took a reach no else did: that Trump had changed/reduced his ask of the North Koreans. Trump did say, “It would certainly be better if it were all in one,” referring to how he’d like to see North Korea give up its nukes. “Does it have to be? I don’t think I want to totally commit myself,” he added. The Times called this a change in tactics aimed at preserving the summit. But does anyone who has closely followed this think that Trump has settled on his plan for dealing with Kim?
This whole drama is what it is because of Trump, someone who cares more about the spectacle of the moment rather than understanding and settling the fraught and weighted history behind this conflict. Like Robert Kelly’s reality-sets-in tweet, Jean Lee, the former APer now commenting from the Wilson Center, observes in the Post’s article that the White House is coming to grips with the unreal expectations that Trump set up by agreeing to meet Kim in the first place. “I wish all of this had been sorted out before Trump agreed,” Lee said. “For all this to be playing out publicly and at such a high level is unprecedented. The players themselves don’t know how this is going to play out.”
Lots of people still think the summit will happen. Victor Cha said on MSNBC Tuesday night that he thinks Trump “really wants this meeting.” The South China Morning Post says there is “too much at stake” to cancel. Yonhap’s reporter at the Trump-Moon meeting declared that Moon had kept it on track.
50….99.9%….who the hell are the oddsmakers for these things? I’d bet against the point spread on this. https://t.co/aRhYgpju6E
— Michael Madden (@Michael_NKLW) May 23, 2018
We’ll see soon enough whether the summit goes on or whether Trump’s “very substantial chance” comment was a pivot, the moment when the Korea Shock gave way to reality and his desire for drama gave way to the less dramatic, hard work of diplomatic negotiation.
For the next few days, though, Will Ripley will entertain us with the blowing up of a North Korean nuclear test site it can’t use anymore (though we’ll see if he mentions that). The South Korean reporters are finally there, after a kerfuffle of their own.