Francis Moriarty: Trump & Kim: Policy on the wing

WILLIAMSTOWN — As this is being written, President Donald Trump is just hours away from sitting down in Singapore with North Korea's leader Kong Jong Un to discuss the removal nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula and a possible treaty formally ending the Korean War.

It could be a very short face-to-face between Trump, the man who considers himself as master of the art of the deal, and Kim, the Swiss-educated head of a dynastic state who is half Trump's age.

"Just my touch, my feel — that's what I do. You know, they say you know if you like somebody in the first five seconds? You ever hear that one? I think that very quickly I'll know whether or not something good is going to happen," Trump said in Quebec shortly after ending the latest in his alliance-busting meetings.

"I have a clear objective," Trump said, "but I have to say: It's going to be something that will always be spur of the moment." He added, "You don't know. This has not been done before at this level."

It was an extraordinary statement, even by Trump's standards.

What planet is he from?

Bluntly put, if this former reality-show host actually thinks that he is going to able to divine Kim's personality in a matter of seconds, or even minutes, he is living on a planet that astronomers have yet to locate.

It's not hard for a man as immodest and triumphalist as Trump to overestimate his own powers of perception, even in the best of circumstances, which the atmospherics of this meeting plainly are not. Trump has called Kim "little rocket man," and Kim retaliated by calling Trump a "dotard," meaning an elderly person of declining mental facilities.

Aside from an undefined denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, it is unclear what exactly the Trump team really wants, an uncertainly only heightened by reports that his chief advisor on the issues, John Bolton, has not been attending meetings of the team making recommendations to the president. Bolton is the hardliner's hardliner, a person of robust opinions on which he brooks no opposition.

The whole affair seems outwardly to be, on the U.S. side, a routine by an improvisational theater company, a policy-on-the-fly type of summit never before witnessed or, for that matter, even contemplated. That fact might be less unsettling were there not already a background of public statements about possible military strikes against North Korea coming from analysts who support preemptive military action and have pipelines into the White House.

Trump himself has added to the atmosphere of spontaneity, telling reporters that "I don't think I have to prepare very much ( ) "It's about the attitude. It's about willingness to get things done."

Even before the summit, Kim has already gotten some things done.

First, he is the only North Korean leader ever to meet directly with an incumbent U.S. president, a fact that gives him enormous internal prestige as well as an elevated international profile.

Secondly, Trump's agreement to attend the summit validates the North Koreans' decades-old pursuit of nuclear weaponry as the key to achieving its goals.

Thirdly, in a world of rapidly disaaembling alliances, North Korea could get itself into a position of leadership among states that want a non-aligned future.

Unlike Trump, Kim has been trained for leadership by a highly opaque system. Even though the nation's constitution mandates that only Kim family members can assume the top post, that requirement is open to possible misunderstanding. It is one thing to be on top, quite another to be wholly in charge.

It is too easy to fall into clich s when reporting on North Korea. The state is "hermetic" and "secretive." Kim, like his father and grandfather, is a "strongman" or "dictator." But we can be victims of our own stereotypes. It is equally possible that Kim has own competing restraints, from within and without his own camp.

For example, the murder of Kim's half-brother (and other relatives) was not necessarily ordered by Kim, though that is possible. It could just as well have been done by others to eliminate potential rivals, or as a warning to Kim to keep with the program.

North Korean factions

This writer has been studying one-party states for several decades, and every one-party state is really a multi-party state, in the same way that a three-ring circus is a single business no matter how many acts are performing inside the tent.

That means North Korea has factions. Those who have dedicated their lives to developing nuclear weaponry might not want to see those efforts scrapped. To them, that could mean all the starvation and painful sacrifices were for nothing. Yet others might fear the consequences of a nuclear exchange involving all Koreans, North and South. Yet others might see the possible profits from eternal investments offered as inducements to end the state of war and terminate weapons development.

It would of considerable help to the cause of peace if we had reliable information and analysis to inform the development of an enduring policy leading to peace in the Northeast Asia. But policy made on the fly, or by delving into someone's eyes, is extremely disconcerting. But that seems to be exactly what we have.

Francis Moriarty is a regular columnist specializing in China and Asia-related topics. He is a former senior political correspondent for Radio Television Hong Kong, a public broadcaster, and has reported from across the Asian region, including South Korea and the North Korean-South Korean truce village at Panmunjom. He now lives in Williamstown.


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