This is a local re-post of an essay I recently wrote for The National Interest about the DMZ summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un. In short, it was a joke, another media stunt of the kind Trump is so good at. But now that everyone – Trump, Kim, Moon – have gotten their vanity picks for the history books and domestic legitimation/re-election needs, can we actually get back to, you know, the actual point of all this – a US-North Korean deal?
This is now the third of these made-for-TV, substance-free summit. Kim wins the optics and legitimation benefits just by showing up. He doesn’t have to do anything; he wins just by coming and smiling for the cameras. Trump on the other hand needs a deal to look like the meeting was worth it, because meeting Kim grants Trump no prestige, as it does vice versa for Kim. In fact, Trump looks at this point like he’s getting played, because he’s not getting anything despite three meetings so far, with a White House event possibly to come. Once again, it looks like Trump is just winging it, which is an asinine way to conduct foreign policy, especially for a superpower.
All that matters is what deal comes from all this and we still have no idea what they will be. It’s fashionable to say we’re making ‘progress,’ but are we? I’d say we’re just drifting.
The essay follows the jump:
Last week, US President Donald Trump held his third summit with North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un. The meeting took place at Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone (DMZ), the de facto border between the two Koreas. At this point, we are still waiting to hear if any substantive movement on the issues which divide the US and South Korea from North Korea is forthcoming. This appears unlikely. Once again, it appears that a Trump-Kim summit was mostly overtaken by the optics and staging.
Trump is a master of media coverage, arguably media manipulation. He has a powerful gut instinct for what makes great drama on television particularly. He used Twitter to suggest Kim come to meet him, and Twitter is a platform heavily used by journalists. He grasped the drama of a grand, last minute gesture against portentous backdrop: He would meet Kim at the DMZ no less and maybe step into North Korea, being the first sitting US president to do so. So the media spent several days endlessly debating the proposal, wondering if Kim would come, wondering if Trump would step over the border. Trump got round the clock wall-to-wall coverage.
Nor was it a coincidence that Trump’s North Korea hijinks drowned out coverage of the Democratic presidential debate. Just as Trump overwhelmed his Republican primary opponents in 2016 by generating endless media stories about himself, so he pushed aside the big Democratic coming out moment with his own well-orchestrated media stunt. The Democrats will have to contend with this sort of attention-grabbing behavior for the next eighteen months, and it does not appear that they know how to respond.
So it was great TV. But what it was not, was great diplomacy. Once again, Trump showed up to a summit with Kim with no preparation. Once again, the summit was thrown together at the last minute. Once again, the president ‘winged it.’ Once again, no concrete specifics came of it. Once again, there was a carnival atmosphere, rather than a professional one in which Trump came ready to seriously give-and-take with Kim. If the analyst community was nearly monolithic in describing this summit as a media gimmick, there was good reason. We are still no further along on the core issues than when this all started in March 2018 when Trump agreed to meet Kim for the first time. This has now become a curious waiting game, punctuated by occasional media hyperbole that such-and-such meeting was ‘historic, ‘epochal,’ and so on.
At this point, it is legitimate to ask when we will get to the actual negotiations over what the two sides will swap. With Trump’s invitation of Kim to the White House, it looks like that moment will again be pushed into the future. A White House visit would be an even greater media bonanza than the previous three summits. The media coverage would likely last a week, drowning out all campaign news, focusing questions of war and peace once again on Trump’s person. The sheer campaign reelection value of such an event would be extraordinary, so Trump probably has little interest in actually wrapping this up promptly. The North Korea process has become a useful, quick go-to media tool for him.
Kim similarly has powerful incentives to drag his feet. It is widely suspected that Kim prefers bargaining directly with Trump to US and North Korean working groups hammering away at details. Trump is clearly anxious for a deal; he told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize. But the hawks around Trump – most obviously National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – want to push the North much harder. This is probably why last year’s negotiations after the initial Singapore summit failed. The North wants to negotiate directly with the president.
Direct Kim-Trump talks also generate a propaganda bonus for the regime – lots of imagery of its gangster-orwellian dictator being treated like a world statesman by the leader of the global superpower. So expect any working groups this year to stumble along, just as they did last year, with Kim waiting for election pressures and the dramatic White House visit to give him more leverage over Trump.
In short, it will likely be another six months or a year of erratic process, with no real deal, plus a lot of should-they-or-shouldn’t-they punditry about a White House visit.
Unfortunately, none of this gets to the core issues, which at this point, I see as the following: 1. Will North Korea give up any nuclear warheads and/or missiles at all? 2. If so, how many? 3. Will North Korea submit to an inspection regime? 4. For these major concessions, will the US offer commensurate counter-concessions? (We have not to date.) 5. If so, what will those US concessions be? 6. Will Congressional Republicans, who undercut both President Bill Clinton’s 1990s deal with North Korea and President Barack Obama’s recent deal with Iran, suddenly accept a new North Korea deal which will almost certainly leave much of its nuclear arsenal intact? 7. Will the North Koreans believe any deal with Trump given, a) Trump’s long history of contract violation in his business career and personal life, and b) US cheating on the recent nuclear deals with Libya and Iran?
None of the Trump-Kim get-togethers have resolved, or even really raised, these hard questions, and after three photo-op summits, we are rightfully skeptical a White House event will either. We are adrift now.