The current uncertainty over whether the meeting between North Korean president Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump will actually take place on June 12 in Singapore should not detract from how important getting just an agreement to meet is. In one of the best articles I have seen so far, John Feffer argues that the foreign policy establishment in the US is correct that Donald Trump got manipulated into agreeing to a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un but that this was good thing.
When, in early March, Donald Trump agreed to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the Washington foreign policy elite nearly suffered a collective heart attack.
You’d think, then, that an announcement of jaw-jaw, not war-war, would have met with universal acclaim in the nation’s capital. Instead, observers across the ideological spectrum found fault with Trump and his attempt to denuclearize North Korea through negotiations. They criticized his timing, his impulsiveness, even the fact that the announcement came from South Korean representatives visiting Washington and not the president himself.
Experts on Korea promptly decried the president’s move because he hadn’t demanded any North Korean concessions first. “We’d expect such a highly symbolic meeting to happen after some concrete deliverables were in hand, not before,” tweeted New America Foundation fellow Suzanne DiMaggio. (In fact, the North Koreans had declared a moratorium on further testing of their nukes and missiles, but that apparently didn’t count.)
Worse yet, the North Koreans were getting the summit of their dreams for nothing. “Kim will accomplish the dream of his father and grandfather by making North Korea a nuclear state,” tweeted Abraham Denmark, head of Asia programs at the Wilson Center, “and gain tremendous prestige and legitimacy by meeting with an American president as an equal. All without giving up a single warhead or missile.”
Feffer says that what appears to have happened is that the leaders of the two Koreas, especially South Korean president Moon Jae-in, had basically managed to get the US on board with the idea of a slow-motion process towards reunification without major preconditions.
And yet, don’t fool yourself (even if most of Washington does): the upcoming Trump-Kim summit, if it happens, will represent an extraordinarily important step forward, whether it actually produces an agreement of substance or not. It may not end the longest ongoing conflict in U.S. history, but that’s really not the point. The summit’s importance lies largely in its symbolic encouragement of another process entirely, one already underway between the two Koreas. U.S. observers remain focused on nuclear weapons, but nukes aren’t actually the key issue here. In fact, for all the talk about Donald Trump getting a Nobel Prize, to put events in perspective you need to remember that the American president is, at best, a third wheel in what’s developing.
The leaders of the two Koreas have effectively manipulated him into supporting a genuinely hopeful, potentially history-changing process of reconciliation on their peninsula. It’s been a brilliant tactic and if U.S. observers of Korea could put aside their kneejerk skepticism, as well as their America First biases, they would be applauding the best chance in decades for Koreans themselves to defuse the most dangerous situation in Asia.
This was, admittedly, not the first time the two Koreas had attempted a détente, but previous efforts had been stymied, at least in part, by American opposition. Congressional hostility toward North Korea during the latter years of the Clinton era and George W. Bush’s inclusion of North Korea in his ominous “axis of evil” in 2002 put a distinct damper on the possibility of inter-Korean cooperation.
This time, however, the two leaders adopted a new strategy for roping the United States into the process. Instead of appealing to the Korea policy community in Washington — an unimaginative gaggle of Cassandras — each of them decided to “turn” the U.S. president.
Feffer goes on to describe in detail how Trump was ‘turned’. The article is long but well worth reading.