Lost in translation
*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
“Dear Mr. Chairman.” So began U.S. President Donald Trump’s letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un canceling their highly anticipated meeting. A friend of mine in the United States, a reporter, said it was written in beautiful English, but Wendy Sherman, a former undersecretary of state in the Obama administration, called it “a 13-year-old’s stream of consciousness in a breakup letter sent from overnight camp.” To me, it sounded like just that, a love letter threatening a partner to stay.
The reporters at HuffPost Korea appeared to feel similarly. They reinterpreted the letter tongue in cheek as follows: “Dearest Un, It truly breaks my heart, but I don’t think we can meet on the 12th because of your open hostility. It would be best for both of us not to meet. We could have been so happy together, but I think we — especially you — missed our chance. If you change your mind, call me or write me anytime. Yours, Donald.”
Trump’s letter instantly silenced Kim. In less than a day, he sent an SOS to South Korean President Moon Jae-in. In Trump’s eyes, Kim must be a naïve kid with nuclear weapons.
What does Korea mean to Washington? Moon’s summit with Kim overshadowed his meeting with Trump last week and exposed the bare face of an uncomfortable relationship between South Korea and the United States. During their meeting, Trump’s expression was clearly one of derision, displeasure and arrogance.
I looked through Trump’s previous comments on China’s Xi Jinping and Japan’s Shinzo Abe, thinking such condescending words might just be a force of habit. But Trump never used such an expression to describe them. This can only mean that Trump felt so determined when meeting with Moon.
“I can’t do better than that,” Trump said in response to a South Korean reporter’s question about Moon’s role in diplomacy. “That’s called an A-plus rating, right? I can’t do better.” The South Korean media reported that Trump gave Moon an A+ on negotiating. The absurd reality is that South-U.S. relations feel different in Seoul and Washington.
The United States believes South Korea is not honestly conveying how North Korea feels, and it is not happy about it. Washington wants to directly deal with Pyongyang, but Seoul always gets involved. South Korea seems to value North Korea more than the United States, information is often leaked, and even though the South is not directly involved, it needlessly says that it is 99.9 percent sure that a Trump-Kim summit will take place.
Such distrust and suspicion was on display when Washington ignored Seoul even after Trump canceled his meeting with Kim. It is unprecedented in the six-decade alliance for the United States to stab South Korea in the back without a prior notice less than two days after Trump’s summit with Moon.
Despite the humiliation — and even if the United States doesn’t want it — South Korea needs to mediate because its own destiny is at stake. There is no other way. But principles of honesty and fairness should be kept.
During his second meeting with Kim, Moon used the phrase “North-U.S. summit” instead of “U.S.-North summit.” On the guest book, he wrote, “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” instead of “North Korea.” The Blue House said it is general courtesy to use North Korean language in the North.
But while Moon was in Washington for his meeting with Trump, I never once heard him say “U.S.-North summit.” Throughout the news conference, he kept saying “North-U.S. summit,” while the interpreter in the meantime chose to say “U.S.-North summit.”
This does not fit the courtesy that the Blue House mentioned. Misunderstandings, when repeated, could be seen as intentional. The mediator role will become ever more important after a possible Trump-Kim summit, and every word and every move needs to be more prudent.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 30, Page 30