On May 1st I wrote:
I also think that aside from the meeting between Kim and the President, the US is now superfluous to the reality on the ground. And that Kim is manipulating the President into a diplomatic and strategic trap where Kim and the DPRK looks like the good guys here and the President, and by extension the US, look unreasonable and become the bad guys. This would also make Xi and the PRC, as well as Putin – another Kim patron – very, very happy.
Part of the problem is I don’t think the President or anyone on his team really seem to understand where President Moon is coming from. Moon is from the center-left/left of center party in the ROK that seeks an opening with the DPRK. His parents were also refugees from the DPRK to the ROK, so reaching a rapprochement that allows for families to be reunited is very important for him.
Moon clearly wants to reach a new normal on the Korean Peninsula. Kim, in the DPRK, wants what he’s always wanted:
- the removal of the US, specifically of the US military, from the peninsula
- the reunification of the peninsula
- under Kim family control
- preservation of the Kim family regime
What Kim is talking about is not what the President or anyone on his team is talking about when they talk about denuclearization. Before US-DPRK negotiations have ever begun we have a fundamental mismatch of what the key term means. This will make negotiating more difficult if there is no agreement to what the key terms mean and key issues actually are. There is little doubt that President Moon knows exactly what Kim means when he talks about denuclearization. Moreover, President Moon is no doubt very clear about the President not wanting to keep US military personnel in the ROK. The President, per his longstanding belief dating back to 1987, sees this as a waste of money and another example of America’s allies and partners taking advantage of it and playing the US for suckers.
… the South Koreans know exactly where they stand with the President. So it should not be surprising that President Moon is going to pursue the ROK’s interests and get the best deal he can get with Kim if there is a deal to be had regardless of what happens between the DPRK and the US. Moon has essentially recognized that there are two separate, though somewhat related, diplomatic tracks going on. The first he controls and is bilaterally between the ROK and the DPRK. The second involves the US, is sort of multilateral and at the same time sort of bilateral, and may or may not be anything more than a show.
From the perspective of the DPRK’s Kim, he’s already gotten what he wants from the US: agreement to the meeting. This elevates Kim and the DPRK from pariah status to worthy of direct negotiations with the US and the President. While the President and his team don’t seem to realize this, or if they do, acknowledge it publicly, this is a key concession from the US to the DPRK. And it was provided without Kim having to do much of anything.
All of this is even more evident today with the President withdrawing from the scheduled June summit in Singapore. President Moon as well as the members of his government, have now seen that even if they try to work within the Trump Doctrine and treat the President fairly in order avoid the “or else”, they’re still likely to get the “or else”. The South Koreans gave the President a number of largely symbolic* concessions in the renegotiated trade agreement in order to pursue the “treat fairly” track of the Trump Doctrine. Instead they’ve gotten the “or else” response. The President has repeatedly stated that he wants to pull all US forces out of the ROK because the South Koreans are ripping us off in terms of trade, he cancelled the more controversial for the DPRK portion of the air warfare exercise with the ROK to keep Kim locked into the summit he just cancelled, and he’s now cancelled the summit because the North Koreans replied as in a very predictable way to the Vice President’s and the National Security Advisor’s threatening invocation of how the US dealt with Muamar Qadafi after he gave up his limited nuclear weapons capability.
At this point Moon has tried the “treat fairly” track of the Trump Doctrine and gotten little positive result. In fact he’s largely gotten the “or else” response. Especially as it has been reported that Moon was “blindsided” by this morning’s announcement.
South Korea’s government seemed blindsided by Trump’s announcement.
“We are attempting to make sense of what, precisely, President Trump means,” said government spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom.
Shortly before midnight in Seoul, South Korea’s president called an emergency meeting to discuss Trump’s decision, summoning his chief of staff, national security adviser, foreign minister, unification minister and intelligence chief to the presidential Blue House.
As a result he has every incentive to simply continue to bilaterally negotiate with Kim to achieve Moon’s and Moon’s government’s understanding of the ROK’s national interest. By impulsively deciding to grant Kim a summit based and now impulsively pulling out of that summit because of some tough talk, the President seems to think that his maximum pressure campaign got him the opportunity for the summit and can now simply be reimposed and once again achieve positive goals. The problem, of course, is there is no evidence that the President’s maximum pressure approach actually contributed to or set the conditions for Kim to pursue a bilateral US-DPRK summit, which is something Kim, his father, and his grandfather have been trying to achieve for decades.
Here’s a link to the live feed of the President’s forthcoming remarks on his withdrawing from the summit with Kim.
Kim has largely already gotten what he wanted. He got the President to agree to meet with him. He got two photo ops with Secretary of State Pompeo. He got the President to call him an honorable man. And he got the President to call this off, making the US look like the mercurial, erratic, and unreliable obstacle to peace. It is important to remember that there are a whole bunch of foreign reporters in the DPRK right now because they were there to observe and report on the destruction of the DPRK nuclear test facility. If we’re very lucky, Kim won’t decide that he too can play the “or else” game as well and scarf these folks up as hostages to use as bargaining chips.
Updated at 12:20 PM EDT
The President has opened his remarks by threatening the DPRK with a military response. For whatever reason, between the President’s positive remarks about the summit in his pre recorded interview with Fox and Friends this AM, his issuing the withdrawal letter, and this press statement, he’s decided to go straight to belligerent. And despite what he’s saying in terms of greatly enhancing our military, the US does not currently have the operational capacity to fight a war on the Korean peninsula. Or anywhere else for that matter.
Updated at 12:35 PM EDT:
Not only did the President not give Moon a heads up, he also decided to blindside the DPRK too!
NK officials didn't give any official comment, but immediately got up and left, right after @willripleyCNN read them the letter from POTUS canceling the summit. This happened on the train following dismantling of nuclear test site.
— Ana Cabrera (@AnaCabrera) May 24, 2018
* The trade concessions that the ROK made are largely symbolic as they apply to types of goods that the US does not currently sell in the ROK and has no intention of doing so for the foreseeable future.