This is a re-post of an essay I wrote just before the Hanoi summit for the Korean Dong-A Daily newspaper.
If you’re tired of all this, save yourself the trouble of reading the essay and just go watch the highlights of Trump’s crazed CPAC speech from yesterday. He is pretty obviously having a mental breakdown. If the guy at CPAC is the same guy who will bring peace to Korea, then we’re all delusional.
Basically I wrote this because South Koreans don’t quite get just how unhinged and ignorant Trump really is. Not being Americans or watching as much American news, they still, flatteringly, expect the US to be, um, mature and normal and don’t quite understand that we’ve elected a man-child who couldn’t care less about Korea, US power in Asia, allies, and so on. It’s crushing to see my students’ faces fall when I repeat some of the things Trump has said. Can’t wait for this to end…
The essay is after the jump:
On February 27 and 28, US President Donald Trump will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. As with the first summit between these two, little is being told to the public beforehand. No one in the US government has given a programmatic statement of goals, strategies, or swaps the US might suggest to Kim. Less than three weeks from the meeting, the parties have still not even agreed to a specific venue. No one really has a sense of what sort of what the discussions will focus on, and more importantly, what Trump might be willing to concede. Once again, we are all in the dark.
This does not mean the summit will fail, but it is indicative of the sloppiness and impulsiveness of the Trump administration. The run-up to this summit looks much like the hasty, thrown-together preparation for the last one. And that previous summit, despite all the claims of a ‘historic’ breakthrough, did not really accomplish much. In the eight months since that first Singapore summit, little movement on Northern nuclear weapons has occurred. We are still waiting for some concrete deal or swaps – North Korean concessions for US counter-concessions – to be proposed.
Much of the stalemate is unavoidable. North Korea and the US are very different regimes. The strategic and ideological gaps are enormous. There is also little trust. Neither side wants to make a large concession, likely because both understandably believe the other will cheat. Given this, it was always a heroic assumption that Trump (or South Korean President Moon Jae In) could revolutionize relations with North Korea so rapidly. One thing that would help this entire process a lot is if Moon and Trump spoke in less grandiloquent, transformational language.
But beyond these structural factors are variables specific to this American presidency, which I think many South Koreans still do not quite grasp. In my experience, South Koreans still, flatteringly, see the US as it was before; they do not realize how clownish, corrupt, and untutored Trump is, how little he cares for allies and previous US commitments, and how much he is undercutting US relationships around the world. I encourage my political science students at Pusan National University to watch CNN, with its endless coverage of Trump, to see just how much his endless scandals and outburst dominate the news and corrode America’s institutions.
It is natural that foreigners would not see all this, and I find generally that most American allies – the South Koreans, Europeans, and the Japanese – are just hoping that the Trump era ends quickly and normality returns. But Trump has focused on North Korea, leaving South Korean little choice but to deal with him. Seoul does this at its peril, because Trump is grossly unserious and unqualified for the office he holds, and that undercuts his ability to negotiate with all his counter-parties – whether that be the opposition Democratic Party at home, or Kim Jong Un or Vladimir Putin overseas.
Trump simply does not put in the time and effort to lead a major initiative – on North Korea or anything else. For the same reason that Trump’s promise to build a wall on the US southern border or fix US infrastructure has failed, so has his efforts to engage North Korea. Trump, to put it bluntly, is simply too lazy to drive the politics to resolution on issues this complicated.
We know now from leaks that Trump spends around half of his day in unstructured ‘executive time’ – a euphemism for Trump drifting around the White House, tweeting, watching TV, calling his friends, and so on.
Yet major policy initiatives – like addressing the North Korean nuclear program – require serious bureaucratic commitment and focused presidential leadership. North Korea policy has many stakeholders – both in the US and east Asia. Congress, human rights groups, think-tanks, the military, the diplomats, US allies, public opinion, and so on all have vested interests in what deal Trump strikes with Pyongyang. Trump has made almost no effort to reach out to anyone on North Korea, beyond Moon Jae In personally.
Trump has never given a programmatic speech on North Korea, laying out his strategy and goals. He ignores US allies – Japan and South Korea most obviously – when it is in his interest. He is impulsive, often changing his mind for no obvious reason. He does not read or listen to briefings, so his foreign policy is prone to capture and competition among his aides. He is so erratic that I am amazed President Moon wishes to work with him.
This unruly laziness also makes Trump ignorant of the most basic issues in any negotiation. There is no evidence that Trump has spent any time learning about nuclear weapons and missile technology, or about Korea. In the eight months since Singapore, he has demonstrated no growth on the relevant issues. How can Trump negotiate with Kim when he does not understand the debate?
Trump’s response to all is that he has a ‘great’ relationship with Kim, which is all that matters. But that is preposterous. Trump has met Kim just once, for only 41 minutes alone. That is shorter than a date. The idea that Trump and Kim can trust each other, through translators after one short meeting belies reality.
In short, Trump is walking blind into this summit, just as he did the previous one. Laziness crippled his ability to pull a deal out of Kim at Singapore and will almost certainly do so again this time.
All this does not mean a deal will not emerge. But it likely will not be a good deal. Negotiating with North Korea is tough, and Trump would have to take it more seriously to get a solid outcome. Far more likely is that Trump simply makes concessions that he does not understand or does not care about because he does not care about South Korea or the US position in Asia.
Maybe we will get lucky, and we can always hope. But there is no obvious ‘process’ leading us to a good outcome. Trump is just stumbling along as he always does. North Korea is holding fast; nothing in its negotiating behavior has changed since June. This next summit is being thrown together hastily in a few weeks, just like the last one, even though the complex issues have bedeviled negotiators for decades. Trump is still grossly untutored in even the basics of the relevant issues – nukes, Korean history – and he is still petulant, impulsive, and focused on optics not substance. His passion, revealed in the recent sharp fight over USFK funding, is still for baiting South Korea over burden-sharing while he claims that he and Kim are ‘in love.’ Who seriously believes that someone this flippant, disinterest in US allies, and ignorant of the negotiating issues will be the one to make a breakthrough that is not just a give-away to North Korea?
Watching CNN to learn about Trump is like reading the Chosun Ilbo to read about Moon. Unlikely to highlight good news, will feature every hiccup. (I am not a Trump fan, but trying to be fair.)
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