The Trump risk

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The Trump risk


Wi Sung-lac
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

The latest South Korea-U.S. summit in Washington made us think again about the ramifications of U.S. President Donald Trump’s unpredictable actions. Seoul tried to revive denuclearization talks after the collapse of the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam and find a way to achieve substantial progress in future negotiations.

However, what was supposed to be discussed in a one-on-one meeting between Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in was talked about during a question-and-answer session with the media. After reporters asked what Trump thought about the sanctions on North Korea, he replied they should be maintained. Trump went on to say he pursues a “big deal” over a “small deal.” Regarding a possible third U.S.-North summit, he said he would not rush.

As Trump gave answers that were different from Seoul’s expectations, the media thought the summit would fail to bear fruit. The media could have been hasty in reaching such a judgment. Given Trump’s pre-emptive reactions, however, it is hard to believe that he approached North Korean denuclearization and the sanctions issue in the flexible way that President Moon wanted.

Some link Trump’s negative reaction to his need to keep Moon in check before the summit. But it probably has more to do with Trump’s spontaneous personality. It is not the first time that Trump received many questions from the media even before the start of a one-on-one meeting. When Moon first visited Washington two years ago, Trump also talked with the press for about half an hour.

Such behavior betrays diplomatic custom because key issues to be discussed during a summit are normally made public after a meeting. That way, a summit’s results can be effectively shared with the media. That’s the responsible way of communication between a head of state and the media.


U.S. President Donald Trump meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the Oval Office of the White House on April 11. [AP/YONHAP]

We should be careful not to repeat these moments in the future. This should apply to both the progressives and conservatives as this pertains to the realm of diplomatic common sense. For instance, if Moon goes to Japan to hold a summit and his Japanese counterpart tells the press before the meeting that the so-called comfort women issue has been resolved and that Seoul is responsible for compensation for South Koreans’ forced labor during World War II, no one would think that is appropriate.

Therefore, when Seoul and Washington prepare for a next summit, they must not allow their leaders to take questions that should be dealt with during the meeting. The summit’s opening session should be reserved for the media to ask questions about the leaders greeting each other. If the leaders are allowed to make a short comment to the press even before the summit, reporters will most likely follow up with further questions. Therefore, the leaders’ greetings and Q&A session should be held after the summit is over.

Even if both sides agreed to do that, there would be no practical way to block Trump from talking with the press before a summit. And yet Seoul has to tell Trump’s aides to follow the diplomatic customs so as not to incur diplomatic damage to South Korea. If the Moon Jae-in administration can do that, Trump’s spontaneous actions may be held back to a certain extent.

No matter how Moon’s summit with Trump actually went, the U.S. president acting out of the norm forced the media to think the summit did not go well.

As the saying goes, however, “Every cloud has a silver lining.” Trump did not talk too negatively. For instance, he showed the will to continue negotiating with Pyongyang and to hold a third summit with Kim Jong-un. Trump also emphasized his personal relationship with the North Korean leader and did not entirely dismiss the idea of striking a small deal, which suggests that Washington-Pyongyang denuclearization talks could be revived. Trump also acknowledged Seoul’s role in the process.

On North Korea’s part, Kim denounced the United States after the second summit yet mentioned his personal relationship with Trump. He was willing to negotiate with the U.S. by the end of this year, as well as to hold a third summit with Trump.

In the past, North Korea would have halted the negotiations. But it did not this time. Instead, Pyongyang said it was open for talks by the year end, which mirrors Kim’s expectations for Trump. Without Trump, the talks would actually have come to an end.

Despite the burden from Trump’s unpredictable actions, South Korea should admit that there is no more powerful negotiation momentum than Trump himself.

The latest South-U.S. summit showed that Trump is both a risk and an asset — and how Seoul should take the negotiations to the right path by managing the risk of Trump.

JoongAng Sunday, April 27-28, Page 35
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