Hardly a bromance

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Hardly a bromance


Nam Jeong-ho

The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In the Oval Office summit on May 22, U.S. President Donald Trump hardly played a courteous host to his South Korean guest, President Moon Jae-in, who flew to Washington in order to keep up the dialogue momentum with North Korea. Trump mostly addressed reporters while Moon sat silently.

With exceptions for praise in his role in Korean affairs, Trump stopped an interpreter from translating for Moon, plainly indicating he didn’t need to hear any more from the Korean president.

Because of Trump’s lengthy remarks to reporters and his tantalizing comments about the likelihood of a June 12 meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the one-on-one between Trump and Moon was cut down from the promised half an hour to 21 minutes. When including time for translation, our president would have spoken five to 10 minutes, including his opening remark. For that brief show, Moon traveled 28 hours to Washington.

The recent summitry could be likened to the 2001 catastrophe in Washington. President Kim Dae-jung drew sneers from his U.S. counterpart George W. Bush after he suggested North Korean leader Kim Jong-il could be a partner. Bush reportedly was outraged by the suggestion of working with a dictator who starves his own people.

The liberal Korean president underestimated the conservative president’s hostility towards the communist regime.

It was similar this time. The North Korean representative did not show up at a working-level meeting in Singapore to discuss the June 12 summit. Earlier, First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan indicated that Pyongyang would rethink the summit with the United States if Washington kept pressing its demands about the dismantling of its nuclear program.

Given his fiery temperament, Trump could not have been happy. He cynically responded, “There’s a chance, there’s a very substantial chance that it (the meeting) won’t happen” even as Moon expressed that he had every bit of confidence in Trump to normalize the relationship with North Korea.

Moon and Trump have little in common either in personality or style. Trump made complaints about the traditional Asian ally during his campaign period over trade and defense issues. “It’s difficult to have a really good and strong relationship with the leader of a country who you think is totally screwing you,” Politico reported, citing a former administration official.

Trump openly expresses admiration for strongmen like Xi Jinping of China, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and Vladimir Putin of Russia, all tough and authoritarian leaders. Trump hardly would appreciate the soft-speaking and modest Moon.

Moreover, Trump is finding Seoul too meddlesome and overstretching in its role as a broker between Pyongyang and Washington. Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said the United States wishes South Korea not to get too involved in the denuclearization process. Washington may not have liked the hearty embrace between the two Korean leaders as they parted after a surprise second meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom last Saturday. Seoul must tread carefully so that unnecessary misunderstandings with Washington do not occur.

There is no need for impatience. Former President Roh Moo-hyun did not get along with Bush any better than his predecessor Kim did. The two were engaged in heated debate for over an hour about financial sanctions on North Korea when they met in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang, in South Korea in 2005.

Victor Cha, who served on the White House National Security Council during the Bush administration, said the U.S. president developed faith and respect for Roh as time passed. Bush reportedly appreciated Roh, because unlike European leaders who were all talk, he kept his promises. Despite earlier pledges, German and French leaders did not send troops to back the U.S. engagement in Iraq.

Roh dispatched troops to Iraq and initiated free trade agreement negotiations with the United States, even at the risk of losing support from his traditional progressive base. He managed to extract visa waivers and a working holiday program for Koreans from Washington.

Seoul and Washington have many pending issues to address after North Korea’s denuclearization. They must address trade issues and assistance to North Korea. Trust between the two leaders is essential.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 29, Page 30
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