Trumped at the summit
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
I watched last week’s South Korea-U.S. summit from the White House press briefing room with other White House correspondents. I felt bad about the meeting, and honestly, a bit angry, too. The Blue House described Korean first lady Kim Jung-sook and U.S. first lady Melania Trump’s participation in the one-on-one meeting between the presidents as a display of “extraordinary respect” from the United States toward Korea’s first couple.
Really? The summit between Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump lasted for 29 minutes — mostly Trump doing the talking and Kim looking uncomfortable. She had to sit on a sofa, seemingly not at ease, as Trump cheerfully went on answering reporters’ questions about the Mueller report and who'd win the Masters Tournament. Kim seemed as if she didn’t know where to look. Trump’s actions that day were not respectful to a guest invited to the White House Oval Office, more so the first lady of a country.
We cannot simply blame Trump’s attitude. The Blue House must have learned about Trump’s style over the past two years, and it should have prepared well in advance. But nothing has changed since last May, when Moon had to watch Trump’s one-man show during a summit in the same room.
The most recent summit only manifested clear differences in each country’s approach to the North Korean denuclearization issue. The so-called small deal with North Korea, which was proposed by Moon, was denied, and Moon’s plan to yield an “early harvest” was basically brushed off by Trump, who said that a third U.S.-North Korea summit could happen but it wouldn’t be a fast process. “It is step by step,” Trump stressed.
William Averell Harriman — a former U.S. ambassador to Britain and a member of “The Wise Men,” a group of foreign policy advisers to U.S. presidents throughout the mid-20th century — once famously said that summits were always held in a polite manner and that it was foreign ministers’ job to have the tough talks. That means diplomats must make their way through working-level preparations for their leaders to achieve productive results. But the latest South-U.S. summit revealed a critical lack of working-level preparations, which led to a summit that wasn’t well put together or even polite. The Blue House should have considered the South Korean people’s national pride. The summit clearly showed how obsessed Seoul is to play the role of mediator.
Roughly 10 hours after Moon returned home from the summit, North Korea’s media delivered its leader Kim Jong-un’s speech, quoting him as saying the South Korean government must not pose as a “mediator or a facilitator,” but as an “actor” to promote the interests of the Korean people.
Moreover, Kim said that he would sign a deal with the United States without hesitation only when it contains “fair clauses which conform to the interests of both sides,” stressing that it all depends on Washington. That points to the significance of a bottom-up approach through working-level negotiations instead of relying on the top-down approach. In other words, Kim would meet Trump in the future only if working-level discussions can yield a convincing agreement.
Kim’s comments were an embarrassment to the Blue House because it fervently floated the idea of holding a third U.S.-North summit, saying Moon and Trump reaffirmed that a top-down approach was a prerequisite for the Korean Peninsula peace-building process.
Moon actually praised Kim on Monday for reassuring his “firm will” to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and establish peace through his latest speech. Moon even said he “highly welcomed” Kim’s “unwavering will.” I read Kim’s speech over and over. Nowhere could I find Kim saying he would give up his nuclear weapons. There was not a single mention of the word “denuclearization.”
It is astonishing how the Blue House could interpret the same speech differently and “welcome” it. Even if the Blue House was reading between the lines, Moon’s comments were undeniably wishful thinking. The result is Seoul being rejected by Washington and scorned by Pyongyang. Moon’s blind proposal to Pyongyang for another summit as soon as possible “regardless of place and format” perfectly symbolizes how Seoul’s North Korea policy has turned out to be a complete failure.
The result of such a meeting is obvious. It is time to have second thoughts about the path we’re currently taking, and ask whether we’re going in the right direction. We should take a step back from the flow of events over the past year and try to change that flow in the coming months. A creative solution will only come to mind after we wake up from this state of mass hypnosis. Detente can be a chimera.
David Reynolds, a renowned British political science scholar, described some reasons behind a summit’s failure in his book “Summits: Six Meetings that Shaped the Twentieth Century” (2007) as the following: when countries show all their cards because they have obvious priorities; when they hear what they want to hear and fail to correctly face the situation; and when they make reckless attempts based on wrong hypotheses, exaggerated legitimacy and blind faith in their persuasion skills. It looks like we could use that advice.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 17, Page 30