Spare a thought, kind reader, for those of us tasked with covering the Koreas. You file a story one day; next day, it is last year’s news. One surprise development follows another like a line of dominoes collapsing in overdrive. And the story straddles two time zones. You cover the news from Asia, then – wham! – something breaks in Washington.
The key players on this manic stage are North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and, of course, US President Donald Trump. Making a crafty play on the sidelines and staying very relevant is Chinese President Xi Jinping. Looking lonely in left field are Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Since New Year’s Day, we have had (deep breath): Kim’s surprise January 1 message; North Korea’s Olympic attendance; the offer of an unprecedented summit with Trump: Kim’s surprise meeting with Xi No 1; his summit with Moon; US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s missions to Pyongyang; Kim’s surprise meeting with Xi No 2; the return of American detainees; harsh rhetoric from Pyongyang; hostile messaging from Washington; Trump’s sudden U-turn on the summit; Kim’s surprise meeting with Moon No 2. And it ain’t over yet.
Today’s developments? So far – in this news cycle, who knows when something else will break – we have, first: senior US negotiators, led by ex-US ambassador to Seoul Sung Kim, are in Panmunjom speaking to their North Korean counterparts on a summit-preparation mission. Lower-level officials are reportedly in Singapore checking sites and venues.
Second: It has been confirmed by the presidential Blue House that South Korean officials are considering deploying Moon to Singapore for a possible trilateral summit after the North Korea-US bilateral.
(Given rumors that China’s Xi may show up – possibly to ink a Korean War peace treaty – things could get crowded in Singapore. World leaders, officials, flunkies, security peeps and thousands of hacks will be jostling for bed space, laptop space and gin-and-tonic space.)
So which player is leading the game?
Kim set everything in motion with his New Year’s message. He has charmed the world (notably, South Korea) with his photogenic presence and impressed with his good faith – halting missile tests, returning detainees, blasting parts of his nuclear test site. He has engineered a stunning reversal of fortune. Last year, he was the besieged, friendless head of a state that was in the crosshairs of the US military, who had never summited with a counterpart.
Kim has engineered a stunning reversal of fortune. Last year, he was the besieged, friendless head of a state that was in the crosshairs of the US military, who had never summited with a counterpart
Today? Kim has met twice with the second most powerful man on the planet – re-securing his frayed lifeline to Beijing in the process – and looks to be the first leader of his nation ever to meet the most powerful man in the world.
Moon has been a key enabler, brokering a process of engagement keeping it on track over a variety of speed bumps. He has moved adroitly – summiting with Kim; with Trump; and again with Kim. But while supporters think the world of Moon, he is not the critical persona here. Much as he may usher the players, he is in essence an intermediary, reliant upon the good faith of Kim and Trump.
How to read Trump? Remember those halcyon days when people considered only North Korea unpredictable? The White House is now rivaling North Korea on that front.
On the one hand, Trump appears unprepared, unprofessional, folksy, buffoonish. Pundits quailed when he accepted Kim’s summit offer without a second thought. From his vice-president on down, fears arose that he would be “played” by Kim; that he was unequal to the task of negotiating with such a crafty, sinister and focused figure. (Never mind the vast gap in age and experience between the two.) Ex-officials harrumphed: How dare he overturn decades of practice and “reward” Kim with a summit?
On the other hand – what chutzpah! What risk tolerance! What self-confidence! No US president has rewritten the diplomatic rulebook so radically.
With Trump trading Kim insult-for-insult in a highly un-presidential manner last year, many (likely including Kim and Moon) feared war. This year, Trump did what no other US president has done: picked up a gauntlet hurled down by a Kim. Not only did he agree to a facer, he placed North Korea at the center of his foreign policy. Indeed, his bet on a deal looks set to be his presidential legacy.
His recent letter calling off the summit jolted both Koreas and was lambasted in multiple circles. Now it looks like a knight’s move – a staged walk away by a master negotiator.
It served notice that the old Pyongyang tactic of being amicable one day, threatening the next – holding out the ball, then quickly withdrawing it – has consequences. It sent Pyongyang’s propaganda wordsmiths – masters of scorn, indignation and apocalyptic warnings – scurrying for conciliatory copy. It gave Kim an attack of the vapors, prompting him to reach to big bro for help. Hence Kim and Moon got down at their surprise second summit on Saturday. Kim, it appeared, had not played Trump; Trump had played Kim.
Alternatively: None of this was due to Trump’s negotiator’s cunning: He was merely reacting.
Anyway, the summit appears to be in play. What next?
Could Pyongyang and Washington discover some common ground? Could that common ground provide the basis for an agreement? Could an agreement expand the common ground, and engender a process? If so: Could we (gasp) be on the cusp of change? Could a Kim-Trump pow-wow become a second Mao-Nixon moment?
Or are the experts right? Kim will never denuclearize meaningfully. History will repeat. The status quo will return – or, with hope shattered, tensions will return at even higher pitches.
Quite frankly, I have no idea.
To quote one player: “We’ll see what happens.” You, the reader, certainly will. And this wild news cycle is breathlessly entertaining.
But for me, it’s trickier. Mr Kim! Mr Trump! Enough games! The time for brinkmanship is over. Kindly commit to this – or not, please.
Don’t keep up hanging. I need to make bookings.