US President Donald Trump’s visit to South Korea after the G20 Summit in Japan as a guest of South Korean President Moon Jae-In was long planned. According to Trump’s own Tweet, the visit to the DMZ was also “long-planned” as a media spectacle.
We will never know whether DPRK Chairman Kim Jung Un reacted to Trump’s tweet and just decided to greet him, or whether there were secret arrangements made behind the scenes to pull off this media bonanza.
Trump’s G20 was lackluster. He finds it very difficult to be at the center stage in such international events. US importance in what’s going on in the world at this time is not as dominant as before: there are no war on terror, no Arab Spring, no potential conflicts, no international crisis, and the US has little to say on global warming. Trump had to back down in his trade war with China in a side meeting with China’s President Xi, after all his strong rhetoric.
The US media also had a field day on Trump’s daughter/adviser Ivanka jumping into the ‘family photo’ of the G20 leaders and trying to break into conversations of leaders on the sidelines.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s Kim Jung Un has risen in international stature since the failed Hanoi Summit with Trump last February. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin met Kim Jung Un halfway in Eastern Russia for a summit last April. Earlier this month China’s President Xi had a successful visit to North Korea which was full of fanfare.
The failure of the Trump-Kim Summit in Hanoi last February left Trump very much empty-handed on foreign policy successes. With US Presidential elections due in November next year, Trump has very little in foreign policy success that he can make claims to.
In fact, Trump seemed to be in some foreign policy disarray after the Hanoi jolt. His harsh words and threats of action on Iran aren’t working, nothing is happening with Israel and Palestine that he can jump on board with, in Europe he is irrelevant, and the Middle East is just too difficult.
On the contrary, the two Trump-Kim summits have elevated Kim Jung Un into a legitimacy where his meetings with other superpower leaders have shown Trump that he is not the only show in town. Kim has also been able to saber-rattle the US by firing off a few short-range missiles without any US threats or retaliations.
Even the misinformation campaign claiming Kim Jung Un had executed some of his advisors backfired when one reappeared in public.
With Trump, it would be easy to say that he had an ego for one-upmanship and saw a potential meeting with Kim Jung Un at the DMZ as his style of brinkmanship. Sort of foreign policy by whim.
However, Trump has the presidential election to think about and desperately needs a foreign policy win to give him the credentials to get a second term in office. He knows Kim Jung Un knows that the next US president after him may not be prepared to give him the time of day, and if any formal understanding and agreement is to be made between the US and North Korea, now is the time. Kim is probably one of the very few world leaders who are prepared to act in Trump’s theatrics.
It hasn’t escaped the attention of the North Koreans that the Trump Administration needs a deal for the election. They tested that with the missile tests and the continuation of their nuclear weapons programs.
Trump is high on symbolism and relished the hour or so within the DMZ in the Trumpian splendor we have become used to seeing. However when Trump answered questions after his meeting with Kim in Freedom House on the South Korean side of the DMZ the same non-statements like “this was a great day” and “we have a great personal relationship,” indicating that nothing so far has happened other than the two leaders have now met face to face three times.
However, Trump’s move may pay off. The impromptu visit to the DMZ did restart the negotiation process once again. This time South Korean President Moon was present, albeit for only a few minutes as Trump kept him in the sidelines during the one on one Trump-Kim meeting. It is now a matter for Secretary of State Pompeo to get some deal out of this restart. This is going to be even harder than getting a meeting between Trump and Kim. Both sides are in fixed positions and the real agenda for Kim Jung Un is maintaining his long-term hold on power, rather than a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. Maybe Trump has already given Kim this in elevating his stature internationally.
Now it’s on to the US Presidential election. Its an election Trump knows he can win. The big issues are going to be the economy and immigration. A continuing peace process with North Korea should give Trump the foreign policy credentials he needs.
Trump keeps saying he has done so much more than Obama on North Korea so is also wondering whether he can pick up the Nobel Peace Prize, something that’s also at the back of his mind.