North Korea Summit: Did Trump Score Big Political Points? Was He Bamboozled? Do Most Americans Even Care?
Coming away from the summit, on paper at least, it looks like Trump gave up more than he got from Kim Jong-un. In this beautifully written piece in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof (who does really know what’s up when it comes to North Korea) asserts that North Korea didn’t offer or agree to anything it hasn’t before, while Trump’s commitment to halt military exercises on the Korean Peninsula is new and significant. (We’ll discuss why in a sec.)
And as we pointed out yesterday (and still not many others have), the agreement Trump signed expressly refers by name to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as the U.S. lead negotiator going forward. North Korea only promises “a relevant high-level…official.” Why is this significant? Because it’s effectively a concession by the U.S. to sideline National Security Adviser John Bolton, who’s bragged about sabotaging the last near-U.S./North Korea nuclear agreement. So that is also a big win for North Korea (and frankly for us all.)
But we’re not sure we agree with Kristof that Trump was “outfoxed”. This summit was meant to be about optics, and about a new era of diplomacy that cares little about whether the leader we’re cozying up to is a brutal dictator or not. In fact, it may be even better if they are, because if it’s more disruptive, it could appear more courageous. Trump got elected because he was going to “shake things up” and if this, on the heels of his crude, confrontational performance with U.S. allies at the G-7 isn’t evidence of that, what is?
While the Trump/Kim summit was thronged with media, and our friends in Asia have sent us all kinds of texts and emails the last couple of days full of questions about the U.S. President, we’ve seen very little of the same from Americans we know who are not strongly focused on politics. And we believe it’s possible a lot of people around here don’t care about it too much. They did when Trump was shouting about “fire and fury” and Hawaii mistakenly sent out an incoming missile warning. But now that things have quieted down, we believe interest has waned too. And perhaps that was a miscalculation on Trump’s part: he ramped things up so hard so fast there was nowhere to go. Now that we seem no longer on the verge of imminent nuclear war, a one-day sit-down/admiration fest is inspiring far less than awe, and Trump may be coming away looking less impressive than he expected to. Maybe we’re totally wrong and his popularity ratings will now skyrocket. We’ll see…
So what happens from here? A lot of it centers around the significance of Trump agreeing to curtail those military exercises the U.S. does (almost always in conjunction with South Korea). Even though Trump bragged he’ll be saving money by calling them off, they aren’t simply done to irritate North Korea, they’re also to ensure preparedness in the still very real possibility of military conflict. And more importantly, those nearly 30,000 U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula (and 50,000 in Japan), aren’t there just for North Korea, they’re there as a counterbalance to China.
One of our readers in a comment to us, painted a very clear picture of what to expect next, and we think he’s on the ball with a lot of it: Kim is already scheduled to meet with China’s President Xi, and China has already expressed its opinion that sanctions against North Korea should be loosened. Something Trump isn’t doing. But as we’ve said repeatedly, since the U.S. has no economic relations with North Korea, the effectiveness of sanctions is almost completely dependent on China. So China could start loosening a little anyway, or at least help North Korea regain some access to badly needed hard currency.
Trump can also probably expect to get something from China in exchange for ending those military exercises. Our reader suggests a concession benefiting the Trump Organization. We’re not quite so cynical. But a major concession on trade would be a perfectly reasonable response from China to Trump’s getting the U.S. military to take one big step back.
Trump says he’s invited Kim to the White House, but it’s not quite time for that yet. Does that mean it’ll be time right before the Midterm elections? And could the timing on a treaty to end the Korean War come right before November 2020? Our reader suggests both those things. Only time will tell.
Finally today, an extraordinary moment of candor and self-awareness from Trump that probably most of you have already seen, but if you haven’t, you should. In his post-summit news conference, Trump professes his belief that Kim’s aim is true, but then starts vamping about what happens if that ends up not being the case. His conclusion? “I may be wrong, I mean I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey I was wrong’. I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.”
You can view the clip here (click on the photo to watch):