Show­ing off at sum­mit

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Don­ald Kirk Don­ald Kirk (www.don­ald­kirk.com) has been cov­er­ing nu­clear talks on the Korean Penin­sula for more than 30 years.

SIN­GA­PORE — Style tri­umphed over sub­stance in a sum­mit of im­agery and op­tics that left you won­der­ing, why did they bother?

Pres­i­dent Trump sought to jus­tify the whole per­for­mance as an ex­er­cise that was “as good for the U.S. as for North Korea,” but the joint state­ment that he and Kim Jong-un signed for all the world to see on TV con­tained no real prom­ises or com­mit­ments, no guar­an­tees, noth­ing that much changed the state of play be­tween the two Koreas.

If Trump dur­ing his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign said that he would like to sit down with Kim for a ham­burger, he and Kim ap­peared in­stead to have shared a noth­ing-burger. There was re­ally noth­ing in the state­ment on which to chew, to di­gest, to sa­vor, that would change the dy­nam­ics on the Korean penin­sula for the bet­ter.

Per­haps the most re­mark­able as­pect of the state­ment was what it did not say. It ne­glected to men­tion com­plete, ver­i­fi­able, ir­re­versible de­nu­cle­ariza­tion (CVID), the term the Amer­i­cans have been us­ing for years to say what North Korea must do about its nu­clear pro­gram. That omis­sion in it­self rep­re­sented a tri­umph for Kim, who pre­sum­ably would not have con­sid­ered any for­mu­la­tion that se­ri­ously com­mit­ted him to de­nu­cle­ariza­tion.

Oh, the words “com­plete de­nu­cle­ariza­tion of the Korean Penin­sula” were there, but as every­one knows they’re a sham. When Kim calls for de­nu­cle­ariza­tion, he is not talk­ing about his own pro­gram but about the “nu­clear um­brella” that the U.S. holds over the re­gion. The U.S. pulled its nukes from South Korea be­fore North and South got to­gether on an agree­ment for a “nu­clear-free Korean Penin­sula in 1992, but U.S. war­ships and bombers carry war­heads seen by the North as a threat.

Trump did not ap­pear fazed by the omis­sion of CVID. He had got­ten Kim to make a “com­mit­ment to com­plete de­nu­cle­ariza­tion” that was good enough for him to claim a break­through. Would Kim when he landed back in North Korea show his com­mit­ment by be­gin­ning to tear down his nu­clear pro­gram? “Skep­tics,” as Trump had put it in a tweet, were “losers.”

There was, how­ever, am­ple rea­son to be skep­ti­cal, doubtful and other­wise cyn­i­cal about Kim’s suc­cess at pre­serv­ing a nu­clear pro­gram that’s en­shrined in the coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tion. Kim’s over­whelm­ing de­sire has al­ways been to main­tain North Korea’s sta­tus as an added mem­ber of the elite eight na­tions that are able to wipe out hun­dreds of thou­sands, maybe mil­lions, with a flick of the switch at the launch pad.

Kim had rea­son to revel. Trump had given him what he wanted, but that wasn’t all. Re­mem­ber all the talk about the need for U.S. troops in South Korea? If North Korea was not go­ing to stage hos­tile acts, open a sec­ond Korean War or other­wise pro­vide a rea­son for their ex­is­tence, why have them in Korea at all?

Trump could not have agreed more. He never liked hav­ing so many troops around. They’re a waste of money, he said.

Kim hardly had to ne­go­ti­ate their with­drawal. Trump obliged by say­ing he would like to pull them back but not quite yet. In the mean­time, he would call off “war games” that he be­lieved were not only “provoca­tive” but costly. Why in this “new era” should thou­sands of U.S. and South Korean troops threaten North Korea with ex­er­cises that the North al­ways calls a threat to in­vade?

What was the deal? Had Trump de­cided to stop the war games in re­sponse to Kim’s de­mand? Had he se­cretly told Kim, “We’ll halt our ex­er­cises if you’ll be sure not to test-fire mis­siles or ex­plode more nukes?” Was this the freeze-for-freeze or ac­tion-for-ac­tion that the U.S. had pre­vi­ously re­sisted?

It cer­tainly sounded that way. Trump’s de­ci­sion to can­cel ex­er­cises with the South Kore­ans was prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant real news of the sum­mit. He did leave an out — that is, he would not or­der their can­cel­la­tion if North Korea still had done noth­ing about its nukes — but ba­si­cally he was cav­ing in.

Trump con­veyed the sense that speed was of the essence. “We have to get things mov­ing fast,” he said. “I re­ally be­lieve it’s go­ing to go quickly.”

You would never guess from read­ing the North’s claim the next day that Trump had agreed on a “step by step” process that Kim had de­manded. Trump was wor­ried about speed. Just to hurry him along, Trump said he’d like to meet him again, maybe at the White House, maybe in Pyongyang. Ap­pear­ances count. Kim had got­ten more than he had bar­gained for.

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