I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on North Korea, or East Asia at all. You’ve already seen a lot of pop-up experts the last few days, and will see a lot more today. (“What matters to Kim most of all is regime stability, Wolf.”)
I also certainly don’t want to pretend that what happened overnight was worse or comparable to nuclear war. It was much better! If I had to choose between a preening Donald Trump and the melting annihilation of human life, I’d choose the former, at least seven or eight times out of ten.
But let’s also not pretend that yesterday was anything more than preening. I can’t say for certain that this was a huge victory for Kim, or that the optics of him meeting with a world leader solidifed his standing in his country or around the world. That Donald Trump basically abdicated America’s historic alliances over the weekend undercuts that a bit, though I suppose Kim might be able to convince the North Korean media to portray it as a historic victory.
(Though to be honest, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. From what I understand, the North Korean propaganda machine portrays America as weak and decadent and crumbling, so why is meeting with its leader a victory? I know that contradiction is the heart of totalitarianism, but I’m still curious about how that circle is squared.)
This summit was optics, which is not nothing in international relations, but is also far from everything. You knew it was going to be optics when they announced that Trump was leaving a little early and that he only had 45 minutes of one-and-one scheduled. You knew it was optics when the Department of Energy wasn’t included in the summit. You knew it was optics, honestly, the second Trump got involved.
This isn’t how summits work. They don’t begin with the President off-handedly announcing he wants to meet. There is months and years of prep work, negotiations and agreements, painful discussions about language as both sides test and push limits. Then the leaders get together and wrangle over the end.
In a way, I get why Trump’s approach is appealing. He’ll cut through all that bluster and just get the job done because he’s a master negotiator. He’ll size Kim up within a minute and figure it out. That’s a fun thought! If you like Donald Trump, that sounds cool.
The problem is that Trump the actual human being has little to nothing in common with Trump the Image. He’s not a good negotiator, is wildly susceptible to flattery, and goes into talks with nothing more than half-baked notions he gets from half-watching Fox and Friends. None of this is an exaggeration. When he said he’s been preparing for these talks his whole life, he just means that he likes haggling with people. It also means he literally hasn’t been preparing at all.
He knew what he wanted out of this. He wanted Kim to say denuclearization, and as soon as he got that, he was gold. He could talk about Kim being a great and wonderful guy who “really loves his country.” And he got that. Throughout his press conference, which by Trump standards was relatively lucid, he talked about how this time Kim’s promise meant something because he “wants to get stuff done.”
Again though, I’m skeptical, because nothing in the signed documents indicates any different pressures or timetables than any other accord ever signed, or even North Korea’s official position (which is they truly and sincerely and why won’t you believe us don’t want nukes, but dream first of a nuke-free world, so you go first). Instead, Trump got a vague pledge and a can kicked down the road.
As Trump kept saying, though, this was just the beginning. But I don’t know. This is his chance to say something went great and then ignore it, and if Kim doesn’t follow through, shrug his shoulders and say he tried. It’s hard to take Trump’s pledges of follow-through seriously. All he does is promise something will happen down the road in order to claim victory, and then do it all again down the road.
He also got Kim to agree to return the remains of American POWs, which is certainly a good thing, but that’s also the kind of good-faith gesture that should be the prerequisite of any meeting.
And what did we give up? Well, for one thing, Trump continuously reiterated his desire to bring home all our troops from South Korea, which is, I guess, fine, except for two points. 1) Saying you really want to do something super badly is not exactly a common tool for a great negotiator, and 2) doing so just because Kim promises to denuclearize still leaves South Korea entirely vulnerable to NK’s conventional forces. Even before the regime went nuclear, the fear was that any conflict could kill tens or hundreds of thousands of people n Seoul just from artillery strikes alone.
Indeed, I think the big outcome of these talks was that Trump agreed to stop us military exercises with South Korea. Here’s the full transcript of that.
We have done exercises working with South Korea for a long time. We call them war games. I call them war games. They are tremendously expensive. The amount of money we spend on that is incredible. South Korea contributes, but not 100 percent which is a subject that we have to talk to them about also. That has to do with the military expense and also the trade. We actually have a new deal with South Korea. We have to talk to them. We have to talk to countries about treating us fairly. We pay for a big majority of them.
We fly in bombers from Guam. I said where do the bombers come from? Guam. Nearby. I said great. Where is nearby. Six and a half hours. That’s a long time for these big massive planes to be flying to South Korea to practice and drop bombs all over the place and go back to Guam. I know a lot about airplanes. Very expensive. I didn’t like it.
What I did say is and I think it is provocative. I have to tell you, Jennifer, it is a provocative situation. When I see that and you have a country right next door. Under the circumstances we are negotiating a comprehensive and complete deal. It is inappropriate to have war games. Number one, we save money. A lot. Number two, it is really something they very much appreciated.
I’m glad North Korea appreciated that! And I’m glad you gave us a deep dive into your tremendous knowledge about airplanes, to let us know that flying them is expensive. You know who wasn’t totally on-board with this plan? Our allies in South Korea, whose military didn’t know that you were canceling these. And neither did ours.
US forces in Korea said they had not received updated guidance on military exercises.
“In coordination with our ROK [Republic of Korea] partners, we will continue with our current military posture until we receive updated guidance,” a spokesperson told Reuters
The South Korean military issued a statement to NBC News saying: “Regarding President Trump’s comment regarding ending of the combined military drills … we need to find out the exact meaning or intention behind his comments at this point.”
This is classic Trump. He’s been all rankled and wrinkly about having to pay for joint military exercises, because all he sees is money and not value, and has no understanding about how these things work or why we do these exercises. So Kim can just say “these are really expensive” and “we’d appreciate it if you stopped” while whispering about nuclearization, and Trump gave up the store.
By “gave up the store” here I mean he sold out our allies. This is a disaster for South Korea, and I think people are just realizing that now. He values Kim’s smiles more than Moon’s security. And you know who else loves that Trump looked at the price tag (though not the value) of exercises in the region and gave them up? China. So this is a huge victory for China and North Korea, and a loss for South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. You might recognize that as a general inversion of American policy.
But that’s what he’s been doing. In the press conference, he is asked about the G7, and goes off on Trudeau for paragraphs at a time (calling him “Justin”), and doing a play-by-play of his own imagined version of events. So to recap, he spent the last few days severing alliances with our friends and strengthening our rivals, if not openly advancing the interests of geopolitical enemies.
That’s why this whole thing struck me as sort of a farce. Obviously, anything Trump is involved in is at least partly farce. That’s part of why I wonder how much of a triumph this is for Kim: there was hardly more dignity in yesterday’s meeting than in his palling around with Rodman. Trump might have been elevated, but he’s still a tacky casino operator and reality show star.
But what really struck me as false and horrible was when a CNN anchor said that it was a victory for Kim to be “meeting with the leader of the free world.” When that leader openly sides with Russia and China over Canada and Germany and the UK, when that leader officially closes our doors to victims of domestic abuse and gang violence, when that leader tweets out praise for the Supreme Court allowing voter rolls to be purged, then he’s not the leader of the free world. He’s just a member of a much darker and crueler world. Maybe that’s why they got along so well.