When news broke that US President Donald Trump would summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – the first meeting between US and North Korean heads of state – mainstream and social media were awash with reports, accusations and plain vitriol that the unprepared Trump would be “played” by the crafty Kim.
Those concerns may indeed be playing out – but if so, it is South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, not North Korea’s Kim, who appears to be doing the very savvy playing.
“President Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize,” Moon told a meeting of senior secretaries early this week, according to the presidential Blue House, which released the information to reporters. “What we want is only peace.”
In response, an apparently charmed Trump said in televised statements that it was “very nice” of Moon to make the recommendation.
Other Seoul officials were equally on-message. “Clearly, credit goes to President Trump,” Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in Seoul after last Friday’s inter-Korean summit. “He’s been determined to come to grips with this from day one.”
And Seoul’s charm offensive continues, apparently, to work its magic: Following the optically impressive inter-Korean summit, Trump has suggested Panmunjom as a likely location for his own summit with Kim.
That would suit Moon just fine. Either before and/or after the summit, it is likely that Moon could also meet the US president to ensure their positions are aligned. Moon has also floated the possibility of a future trilateral summit between himself, Kim and Trump, to keep all parties focused.
On Wednesday, Moon threw another bone to Trump: His spokesperson said even a peace treaty for the Koreas would not necessitate the withdrawal of US troops, who are “an issue regarding the alliance between South Korea and the United States.” Some 28,500 GIs are now based in South Korea.
In fact, a Blue House tactic to co-opt Trump was laid bare by a Moon advisor at the Asan Plenum, held in Seoul just prior to last week’s summit.
Kim Joon-hyung, a Handong Global University professor, confided during a panel discussion, that in an early meeting with Trump, Moon had attempted to present the US president with a detailed roadmap, but had not been able to hold the president’s attention. So, the Blue House shifted tack, and started praising Trump.
Does Trump deserve real credit?
Yet others say Trump deserves real credit, not faux praise.
“It is important to appreciate that in other countries, they are not looking at Donald Trump through the lens of domestic American politics: If you are a conservative good old boy, you are all in favor, but if you are opposed, he could bring world peace and they would not give him any credit,” said Mike Breen, British author of “The New Koreans.”
“The rest of the world are looking at Trump for their own interest, so praising Trump – as Japanese and Koreans have done – is partly genuine as he has played a crucial role: Here is a man their advisors know likes to be flattered, so they are crediting him with achievements thus far, trying to ensure that he stays committed.”
Breen noted that Trump’s diplomatically conventional predecessors had been unable to do what Trump had, in terms of both sticks and carrots.
“None of his predecessors were able to deliver a credible military threat to scare [North Korea],” Breen said. Addressing the fact that Trump has taken the unprecedented step of offering a summit to a North Korean leader, he added: “In this part of the world, that is how it has to be: A summit kick starts a process, whereas for rest of the world, the summit is the reward at the end of the process.”
Shin Beom-chul, the director of the Center for Security and Unification at the Asan Institute in Seoul, granted Trump at least half the credit.
“In terms of the peace-building process, President Moon has a larger share, but in terms of inducing change from North Korea, that can be attributed to President Trump,” Shin told reporters at a press briefing on Wednesday. Noting that there is “a lot of speculation” on why North Korea is now being so forthcoming, Shin referenced successful sanctions pressure; Seoul’s willingness to engage; North Korea’s fear of a military strike from the US; and North Korea’s comfort in their own strategic weapons development.
“Nevertheless I believe the biggest role was maximum pressure and [the willingness to engage with Kim] by President Trump,” Shin concluded.
Even anti-Trumpian Americans grudgingly concede that his approach has some pluses.
“I would not say [Trump] does not deserve any credit: He is the joker, he is chaos, and by taking the whole system and flipping it over and defecating on the federal government, he has created a chaos that has facilitated some flexibility,” said Emanuel Pastreich, director of the Asian Institute in Seoul. “Evil people can play good roles on occasion.”