Is Washington caught once again with its trou down around its ankles? So it would seem. This time the scene of ineptness is in Northeast Asia.
Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s forward-looking president, worked assiduously from the day of his election last May to restart long-moribund negotiations with the North. The policy cliques ignored him: just another hapless peacenik.
Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, split the coconut open on New Year’s Day, when he declared he had built the nuclear deterrent he needed and was ready to talk with his southern compatriots. Nothing can come of this, Washington declared: We need more sanctions. And they quickly followed.
Then came the Winter Olympics, during which Kim’s sister and his most senior official crossed the 38th parallel to watch North Korean athletes compete. The Americans scoffed: You see how crazy this Kim guy is? Now he’s trying a charm offensive. You never know what he’s going to do next.
Now comes the caker.
Emissaries from Seoul duly met with Kim in Pyongyang last week, and the encounter went swimmingly. Chung Eui-yong, President Moon’s national security adviser and leader of the South’s delegation, then flew to Washington to brief the White House — but also bearing messages. He delivered the big one Thursday: Kim proposes a summit with President Trump, Chung seems to have more or less blurted out during a meeting with the Dealmaker that was jumped ahead by a day on the White House schedule.
Trump instantly accepted the invitation. As things now stand the two heads of state are likely to meet by May.
Yes, those are trousers (olive green) crumpled around the knobbly ankles of Trump’s foreign policy guardians (or guards, better put). Come again, who is hapless?
Stutter stutter, splutter splutter. Here is what we must not miss: It is neither Moon nor Kim who now leaves Washington in so embarrassing a position, although they have handily, impatiently taken the matter out of the Americans’ hands. It is the man in the White House who calls down the coup de foudre. I will return to this important point.
Apart from the president himself, the administration is solidly lined up against this initiative, as has been clear throughout this episode. The theme emanating from Washington late last week was that the policy cliques have not had time to formulate a negotiating position. In its report Friday, the New York Times termed Trump’s decision to accept Kim’s invitation to summitry “a breathtaking gamble.”
Wow. All those years hacking away in the vineyards, as one of my editors used to put it, and I never understood what a breathtaking gamble looks like. Two carrier groups off the North Korean coast, nuclear-capable bombers overflying the peninsula, thinking-out-loud threats of a first strike or a ground invasion, starvation-diet sanctions: All this for more than a year now, and Trump’s decision to talk to North Korea’s president is the high-wire risk that takes the breath away.
I read the Times every morning because I must — not to find out what happened and why, but to discover what I am supposed to think happened and why. Then I go in search of what happened and why. I try not to complain, but if I may pause for a sec: It sometimes gets very, very trying.
Not enough time to develop a negotiating strategy? Nonsense. Washington has had at least since last May, when Moon replaced the nicely belligerent Park Geun-hye, daughter of one of the old dictators the U.S. kept in place as long as it could. One can count much further back, of course. The truth here is that Washington has rarely seen the need for such a strategy. There have been times in the past when it had no serious negotiating strategy even when it was negotiating. There is a want of earnestness on Washington’s part when it comes to resolving the Korea crisis, and it has a long history. If I am correct in my assessment, we are about to see what this looks like once again.
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This leads to two questions we had better pose as we watch the next few months of political and diplomatic drama unfold. The only thing one can be certain of just now is that it is going to be interesting and will require close scrutiny. Best not rely too much on the Times, in other words.
The first of these questions concerns immediate events. What will happen between now and the suddenly planned Trump-Kim summit? (And how odd even to type this phrase.) Will Trump’s policy people — meaning active and retired generals and admirals — take the time to develop the absent negotiating strategy? If so, what shape will that take? If they prove unserious in this respect, what will they do instead? At this early moment, we cannot leave these questions off the list: Will there be a summit at last? Or will Moon be again cast as the wide-eyed innocent, Kim the ghoul who wants to invade California, and that will be that?
I have no answers to these questions as of now: I do not think any are possible. But there are observations to make nonetheless.
To begin, the policy people in Washington have new problems. Kim has done exceedingly well — in his session with the South Koreans and now with the straight-ahead invitation extended to Trump. Everyone is surprised, but I am not sure there are grounds to be. In my view Kim’s turn reflects a point I have made in this space for months: The North’s nuclear deterrent is absolutely key to a peaceful settlement in Northeast Asia, and it now proves to transform Kim’s posture and conduct. This is wholly favorable. To continue carrying on as if the 35-year-old Kim is a kook is mere Orientalism of the crudest, yellow-peril kind.
Kim has disarmed Washington on the public performance side. And he has done so in other ways closer to the ground. He has made no objection to the continuation of U.S.– and U.N.–imposed sanctions during negotiations. He has not insisted that the U.S. and South Korea suspend joint military exercises off the Korean coast as a precondition of talks. And he has identified — so far as I know, for the first time — denuclearization of the peninsula as the goal of negotiations. To date, demanding these things has effectively served as Washington’s insurance against the prospect of talks.
How will Washington-other-than-Trump respond to this new situation? Suddenly, and at least for the moment, it does not have much more to throw at Kim. It might continue to insist the North simply cannot be trusted — an argument Washington continues to get away with despite its own list of past betrayals and unkept promises. Or it might demand that Pyongyang agree to everything Washington wants before beginning to negotiate anything — the prevalent position this past year. As of now, however, events could turn either way. The policy planners could prepare for negotiation on the assumption Trump’s talks — and the two are different — go well. Or between now and May they could do what has worried me for months: They could do their best to provoke the North beyond its tolerance or otherwise conjure causes to scuttle the summit. My money is on the latter, I regret to say.
In this latter case the Trump-Kim meeting might prove stillborn or it might not take place at all. The ground is being prepared as we speak. “It has all the hallmarks of yet another grand bamboozle by North Korea’s regime,” one commentator asserted after the summit was announced. What these hallmarks are she did not say, but cheap, unschooled remarks such as this are typical of the orthodox position. (So is the argument with no serious argument.)
There is one other thing we need to consider in this connection. Moon has worked for many months with the Russians and Chinese to develop blueprints for a substantive economic integration of the North with the Russian Far East, the mainland and South Korea. I have written of this previously in this space, while noting there is plenty of evidence Kim is at bottom an aspiring modernizer, as his father was.
Since last autumn there has been intense, unreported diplomatic activity involving Seoul, Moscow, Beijing, the UN secretariat in New York, Pyongyang and Geneva. A source with good official contacts in Seoul tells me by email that the Swiss have had a considerable hand in this — as they did, this source advises, in the success of the Olympics arrangement. We do not have much detail about these matters. It is safe to assume, nonetheless, that such efforts are likely to count heavily and positively in Pyongyang. At the very least, they strengthen the case that Kim’s démarche is other than a bamboozle, whatever legions of know-nothing commentators and think-tank occupants will now obediently insist upon. Americans can continue to invest in this line, but to their cost more than anyone else’s.
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We come to our second question. It concerns the evolving circumstances in Northeast Asia but extends far beyond this. What is Trump’s position in the foreign policy sphere? This is our question. As of last week it is again critical.
What Trump did last Thursday afternoon he has done numerous times in the past. He used to say often he would be pleased to summit with Vladimir Putin in recognition of the many common interests Washington and Moscow share. He once suggested he could make some sense out of a summit with Bashar al–Assad, the Beelzebub of Damascus. There was the “best chocolate cake” encounter with Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago last spring. He has previously proposed a summit with Kim, indeed. He is a seat-of-the-pants man in the American grain, and he is confident of the value of face-time. What is wrong with talking, he all but asks.
The Assad remark was a toss-off, so we can set that aside. What has happened when Trump has suggested summitry with Russia and North Korea, the two most essential actors in America’s endless enemies-are-everywhere morality play? One, Trump has apparently spoken outside the parameters set by his policy advisers, and in impromptu fashion. Two, he has been reined in and then contradicted within a matter of hours on each such occasion. It is like watching a farmer chase down stray livestock. In the one case we are stuck with Russiagate and in the other we have been brought to the brink of nuclear calamity.
Only a few of Trump’s foreign policy ideas are of any worth, and he has been prevented from going anywhere with any of them. I continue to think the defining moment in his position on the foreign side was his “my generals” speech a year ago next month, in which he professed to trust the military so much he would leave it all to them. That was to put a good face on an ugly reality, in my read. That moment marked the domestication of Donald Trump, as I called it at the time. The Pentagon has run policy openly ever since, and whatever Trump may say must be put against what the guard at his door — H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser — allows him to say. Only on those occasions when he is on his own — as last Thursday with Chung Eui-yong in the Oval Office — does he still appear to say what he means.
It was easy enough to see that Washington’s pants were about to fall as Moon proceeded with his revival of Kim Dae-jung’s "sunshine policy” toward the North. But it is Trump who just trumped his policy minders. It is fun to watch, but we must now ask how ugly is the ugly reality that America does not have a foreign policy, only a military policy? Reader, you do not need me to answer this. The next few months will tell us.
Sometimes columnists hope they are wrong, and this is one such case. Washington could do the right thing: Let Trump sit with Kim, probably in Pyongyang, and dust off the mahogany table if the encounter goes OK. I think it could — provided it has a chance to. But I am not confident Kim and Trump will get that chance.