The photos of Kim and Trump at the DMZ set my BS meter to clanging. Then I read that the official North Korean Central News Agency had pronounced the Sunday photo ops as “historic handshakes” and an “amazing event.”
That’s when the meter added the “woo-woo-woo” of a siren.
In good conscience, though, I needed to do a reality check to make sure I hadn’t become too cynical. Was there something I had missed? To that end, I heard from a couple of laymen, American citizens pondering, among other things, the coming presidential election.
Shopping at my local supermarket I encountered Jimmy, a retired university professor who’s become a paragliding hobbyist. Without my even asking, he succinctly confirmed my BS meter’s skepticism about the Trump-Kim grip-and-grin: “All show, no substance. Diplomatic smoke and mirrors.”
‘A sly old viper’
Meanwhile, friend Peter, a financial professional, sent me an email that was so hot it smoked. I had to wave it around to cool it off before quoting it:
“I’m so disgusted by Trump’s devious cleverness. He’s a sly old viper. He wants to make a parallel between Nixon opening China and himself walking into North Korea. The difference is that the Kim dynasty are global pariahs who are loved only by the Middle East states they sold nukes to.
“Trump has clasped Kim’s fat syphilitic bloodstained hand so many times now that average people are forgetting that Kim’s a monster. He would happily have met anyone that legitimized him, and no matter how many politicians he does meet, he has no incentive to give up his nukes. There’s no way he really trusts Trump; he’s just delighted to bask.
“What I hate the most,” Peter continued, “is that it makes me wonder if somehow Trump is doing the right thing – flatter and suck up to the murderer until he is somehow checkmated and forced to come around. Trump is so damned good at creating these compelling images.
“But if I stop and think,” Peter concluded, “it’s obvious that Kim can never ‘come around.’ His power and his life depend upon him ruling his military and sucking the life out of his people. If he were to give up even an ounce of his total power and grip, he would end up like Ceaucescu, Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein – or, in the best case, like Hitler putting a bullet in his head as the enemy surrounds him.”
But … but, Peter, why sugarcoat these guys? Say what you mean. Don’t hold back.
‘A low point for me’
I would have consulted then with a colleague who normally keeps close tabs on real news events and hyped non-events on the Korean peninsula, but he had given Panmunjom a pass in favor of a vacation trip to the UK to watch the Cricket World Cup.
Another specialist, Daniel Sneider of Stanford, checked in to say: “I thought I was beyond being surprised by Trump, but the show at the DMZ may be a low point for me. The legitimation of Kim is unreal – and his ability to manipulate Trump is incredible.”
Sneider added: “Of course Trump doesn’t care about anything but the images – and he gets pissed when the media point out there is nothing but a shriveled wizard behind the curtain.”
Also feeling pessimistic was Fletcher School NK watcher Sung-Yoon Lee, who retweeted a quote from the Washington Post’s Max Boot: “Ironically, the three meetings between Trump and Kim have proved to be an impediment, not a lubricant, for negotiations, because Kim has realized that Trump is far more pliable – and gullible – than any of his aides.”
Lee has his own new article in The Hill in which he argues: “Pyongyang’s controlled provocations and bluster barrages followed by de-escalation and fake peace overtures have a proven record of success. Create a crisis, back down a bit and compel the US to give more. It’s the North Korean way, and a highly rational strategy.”
Lee’s article continues: “Were Kim Jong Un a poor, passive dictator who could be tamed with economic concessions and security assurances, Trump’s theatrical proposal for a meeting with Kim, even if just for a handshake, might have advanced the US goal of seeking North Korea’s complete denuclearization. President Trump could have reassured Kim that he means no ill will toward his regime and reaffirmed messages from previous summit meetings that full denuclearization would bring aid, investment and, ultimately, riches to his people.
“But because Kim himself, a dictator for life, is far richer than Trump, quite proactive in peddling his own brand of nuclear blackmail stratagem, and a despot unencumbered by the welfare of his own people, Trump’s gesture and, indeed, his entire approach to engaging North Korea likely will have the opposite effect of affirming Kim as the steward of a full-fledged nuclear state. With more deft maximization of weirdness and unforced errors by Washington, Kim will be given an even greater opportunity to complete his non-negotiable campaign of overpowering the far richer South.”
I definitely agree with his characterization of Kim’s “non-negotiable campaign.”
Vipin Narang of MIT, another professional Pyongyang watcher, offered a slightly semi-optimistic tweet: “Hey if this jumpstarts working level meetings out of the post-Hanoi cardiac arrest by showing good faith and starting to build trust, that’s great. Worth the reality show theatrics. If not, then we will keep tuning into this same show for the next 15 months I guess.”
Robert E Kelly, yet another pro, whose home base is Pusan University, retweeted Narang – but with a less optimistic spin. “This is right,” Kelly conceded. “But if this is Trump’s logic now, why not meet at McDonald’s for that hamburger summit? Why not invite Bashar al-Assad to the W House for some grill? Is slapdash personalized diplomacy now the US method? Is that superior to planned, prepped summits with actual deals?”
New York Times correspondents Michael Crowley and David E Sanger, on the other hand, report that “a real idea has been taking shape inside the Trump administration that officials hope might create a foundation for a new round of negotiations. The concept would amount to a nuclear freeze, one that essentially enshrines the status quo, and tacitly accepts the North as a nuclear power, something administration officials have often said they would never stand for.”
The Times reporters see some possibilities in an outcome that sounds much like what Lee views as a disaster. A compromise such as they envision, Crowley and Sanger note, ” falls far short of Mr Trump’s initial vow 30 months ago to solve the North Korea nuclear problem.”
But, they add, “it might provide him with a retort to campaign-season critics who say the North Korean dictator has been playing the American president brilliantly by giving him the visuals he craves while holding back on real concessions.”
Chad O’Carroll, the founder of NK News, tweeted his takeaway from the Crowley-Sanger piece: “An important NYT report which – if true – suggests American policy-makers are beginning to wake up to the fact that CVID / FFVD can only be the long-term cosmetics to channel *step-by-step* negotiations through.”
CVID is complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. FFVD is final fully verifiable denuclearization.
The final verdict, it appears, won’t be in for a while.
Bradley K Martin is the author of a history, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, and of the North Korea-set novel Nuclear Blues, currently being serialized in Asia Times.