The Koreas got the full-on treatment from President Donald Trump’s reality TV show approach to leadership and diplomacy this past week. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of articles have emerged since Trump’s decision last Thursday to cancel the June 12th summit with Kim Jong Un, which he almost as quickly began trying to resurrect. Beyond the tick-tock of his tweets, comments and the efforts by the Korean leaders to respond to Trump, only a relative handful of stories gave the bigger picture and showed the movement, or lack of it.
Choe Sang-hun’s piece in the Saturday New York Times is the best explanation of North Korea’s intentions and needs, which Trump’s mercurial move helped to reveal. Swiftly put together after North Korea took a conciliatory tone to Trump’s cancellation, then updated with word that Moon Jae-in and Kim had a quick summit on Saturday, Choe’s story turns on an insight from Asan Institute’s Shin Beom-chul: “As long as sanctions are there, Kim Jong-un can never deliver the kind of rapid economic growth he has promised for his people.” Kim is walking a tightrope too. While unlikely to give up the North’s nuclear pursuit or its weapons, his New Year’s speech signaled a new economic drive and he’s at least got to find a way to ease the sanctions. Trump’s vacillation on the summit has weakened his “maximum pressure” campaign against the North, so Kim is already part way to his goal.
In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Tim Martin had a great story about the ongoing cyberattacks North Korea is conducting against South Korea. He showed that, despite the image of peacemaking given by Moon and Kim in recent weeks, the two Koreas are not friends or friendly with each other. The irony Martin doesn’t mention (because too historic or nuanced and not relevant to the moment) is that the vulnerability the North Koreans are exploiting is entirely the making of the South Korean government’s backward regulation of web browser software and encryption standards. A decade ago, I wrote stories about efforts by university technologists and lawyers trying to get the government to throw out those regulations but the local companies and government agencies that benefit from them have always won their fight to protect the status quo.
From the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield came the scoop on Sunday that showed the Pompeo State Department and Trump White House had finally gotten serious about talking with North Korea — by bringing Sung Kim, the former U.S. ambassador to Seoul and envoy to North Korea back into the action. Trump has disparaged the former diplomats who have dealt with North Korea before, but clearer heads are at last starting to prevail in this process.
Over the weekend there was the crazy sideshow of stories about Trump disputing Matt Pottinger’s characterization of the White House’s ability to pull together a summit by June 12. None of the reporting over that nonsense dared to venture who was right, Trump or Pottinger. But of course, Pottinger is. And the best reinforcement of why came on Tuesday (yesterday) from Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution. Key passage:
“There is as yet no U.S.-North Korea agreement on the terms of a summit, and time is running out to reach such an understanding. An unspoken but unmistakable anxiety thus pervades these intensified political and diplomatic maneuvers. Only 10 days before President Trump’s presumed departure for Singapore, it is stunning how little remains agreed to, even in broad conceptual terms.”
Brian Myers waded into the discussion for the first time since March by raising the fundamental question that people who say North Korea will bargain away its weapons can’t answer: “Let’s presume that does happen. And then what? How does the regime go on justifying its existence?”
Riffing off a Wall Street Journal editorial, Daniel Larison returned to his theme of why the unreal expectations set by both the Koreas and the U.S. are detrimental to the process.
On the day Trump canceled, Duyeon Kim cited Scott Snyder as predicting from the start that there would be at least one postponement or cancellation of the Trump-Kim summit.
So again, @snydersas called it from Day 1. That each side would delay/postpone/cancel at least once each before meeting. Scott always has incredible foresight & insight. Immediate next steps, see: https://t.co/PIlmIowu1p https://t.co/3V2dYuS1Sd
— Duyeon Kim (@duyeonkim) May 24, 2018
There’s a lot of effort now afoot to put something back together. But more twists are likely. All in all, this is shaping up as a slow walk back to multilateral diplomacy akin to the Six Party talks.