‘Politicians — one day you’re enemies, the next you’re shaking hands. That’s politicians.’
That bit of wisdom — and despite its folky tone, it contains a substantial insight — doesn’t come from a political strategist or sage. I heard it uttered last week by Sue, my guide on a tour of the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. Sue, amiable but with a no-holds barred attitude towards communicating what some might call information and others opinion, turned out to be more prescient than most Washington pundits. In a single dizzying day — one that also included President Trump signing orders that could start a trade war and the media disclosing more details about his alleged affair with a porn star — the world learned that North Korean supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, wanted to meet the US President, and that Trump had accepted the offer and vowed to make a meeting happen within two months. The pair spent last year waging a war of words — Trump called Kim ‘Little Rocket Man,’ while Kim returned the favour with the more obscure ‘dotard’ — but will soon be shaking hands at a yet-to-be-decided location.
The New York Times had the bizarre back story: a South Korean official who came to the White House to report details of the country’s just-concluded talks with the North was unexpectedly summoned into the Oval Office a day early. He noted in passing that Kim wanted to meet Trump, and Trump immediately and enthusiastically agreed to do something no sitting American president has ever done. The President wanted the official to tell the White House press corps right away; the man had to call his boss, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, to get permission first.
People debate whether the young dictator is rational, but this play suggests he is, as Trump once suggested, ‘a smart cookie’. Instead of negotiating with experts who have studied the peninsula for decades, Kim will talk to Trump, who had more to say about a ‘beautiful piece of chocolate cake’ than about pressing policy concerns after his meeting at Mar-a-Lago with Chinese President Xi Jinping. As Sue told the group on the tour bus, even North and South Koreans, who speak the same language, don’t always understand each other: ‘They have their own vocabulary and we have our own vocabulary created over time. So sometimes it’s hard to know what they’re saying.’
Kim might talk of ‘denuclearisation,’ as Trump noted in a Twitter post soon after the announcement of the forthcoming historic meeting was made. But Trump has no idea what Kim means when he says that—or whether he even means what he says. ‘Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached,’ Trump tweeted, his use of the word ‘until’ implying an agreement will be reached. An astute U.S. Forces Korea official told me last week in Seoul that Kim sees his nuclear capability as the one thing that can ensure the survival of his bankrupt, in every sense of the word, regime. If someone wants to get Kim to denuclearise, he will have to convince Kim that something else can offer him the same security. Can Trump do so? And should he — or anyone — do anything to assure the vicious leader of a starving country that his future is secure?