Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Not Kim, Not Trump, But.... Us?

On Wednesday morning, President Trump tweeted 

President Trump may simply suffer from seriously impaired judgement. Political science professor Vipin Narang,a fellow at the Federation of American Scientists and senior editor at The Diplomat magazine believes that with the Trump-Kim summit, "China moves closer to being the dominant power in northeast Asia"  and "the lesson for states like Iran is simple: Acquire a thermonuclear ICBM that can threaten America and you too can have your Singapore declaration — a fast track to nuclear status."  He argues

North Korea has arrived as a nuclear power, and there is no going back. Once the reality-show theatrics of the Singapore summit meeting subside, we are left with the reality that North Korea was just recognized as a de facto nuclear weapons power.

President Trump went to the meeting with Kim Jong-un of North Korea to try to take the keys to Mr. Kim’s nuclear kingdom. Whatever the terms of the statement released at the end of the meeting, Mr. Kim has not committed to anything concrete. He is not surrendering North Korea’s nuclear weapons and has walked away the big winner.

North Korea declared its nuclear weapons force technologically complete at the end of 2017, with its third successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Now, less than a year later, North Korea’s nuclear power is politically complete, thanks to the legitimacy that comes from a handshake with an American president. Mr. Kim did what neither his father nor grandfather could do before him: sit down and negotiate with a president of the United States. The Singapore summit meeting looks indistinguishable from a meeting between the leaders of two states with normal diplomatic relations. But this is far from where Washington and Pyongyang have ever stood. It was Mr. Kim’s development of nuclear weapons — and the credible means to deliver them to America — that made the meeting possible.

Didn’t he just agree to “work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”? He did. Just like his grandfather’s deputies did in 1993. That phrase — “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — is a term of art that the United States and North Korea can interpret to suit their interests.

The summit provided nothing specific, let alone verifiable. It also poses, as Narang describes, tremendous opportunity for expansion of Chinese influence in Asia and a serious threat to the security of South Korea.

Yet, when President Trump looked around the negotiating table, saw only Kim Jung-un and two interpreters and did not identify the mark, it might not have been him. William Saletan explains

When your adversary wants concessions, you’re supposed to raise the price by projecting reluctance. Instead, Trump has expressed eagerness to do what Kim wants. Trump says he wants to end joint U.S. military exercises with South Korea—a long-standing North Korean goal—since he wants to save money anyway. He hints at a rift in the alliance with Seoul, grousing that South Korea doesn’t pay the whole cost of the exercises. And he signals that he’d be happy to pull U.S. troops off the peninsula altogether: “I want to get our soldiers out.”

Trump isn’t trying to impress Kim. He’s trying to impress you. He starts by lowering the bar, claiming that any summit outcome is better than the nuclear holocaust people feared after Trump escalated the war of words with Pyongyang. “You could have lost, you know, 30, 40, 50 million people” in a nuclear war, Trump pointed out in the press conference. Then, to pad the tally of gains from the summit, Trump double-counts things North Korea had done beforehand: releasing hostages and suspending missile launches. Trump demands extra credit for not giving North Korea $150 billion, which he falsely claims Obama gave up in the nuclear deal with Iran. (Spoiler: It was Iran’s money.)

In the Singapore agreement, Trump hasn’t insisted that Kim accept clear methods of verification. Instead, Trump asks you to accept Kim’s vague assurances. “I do trust him,” Trump told Stephanopoulos. When asked how denuclearization will be verified, Trump offers mumbo-jumbo: “It’s going to be achieved by having a lot of people there, and as we develop a certain trust.” Trump says you’ll have to wait 15 years for proof that the deal was honored, since “scientifically,” it takes that long to denuclearize.

Mumbo-jumbo.  That technical language suggests that Trump knows what is going on, that whatever he and his new buddy mean by "denuclearization" cannot be verified under terms of the paper-thin agreement.  Instead

As usual, Trump is lying. And he’s happy to enlist Kim in the con. At the press conference, David Sanger of the New York Times asked Trump whether Kim’s promises were based on an adequate logistical understanding of “dismantling both the uranium and the plutonium processes” of his nuclear program. “He understands it so well,” Trump replied. “He understands it better than the people that are doing the work for him.”

Perhaps smart people working for Kim were murdered, leaving him with a weak staff.  Maybe working a good deal for the USA- or even doing a favor for Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping- isn't what Donald Trump is after. If his motivation is primarily financial, an effort to open up new market(s) for the Trump enterprises, the President's strategy is entirely rational. Saletan recognizes

Trump has spent a lifetime using other people’s celebrity to promote himself and his products. To him, Kim is just another celebrity. That’s why he spoke at the press conference about North Korea as a real estate paradise with beautiful beaches. It’s also why Trump credited Kim with saving, through North Korean participation, this year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea. “They weren’t exactly selling tickets,” said Trump. But once “Chairman Kim said, ‘Let’s participate in the Olympics,’ it sold like wildfire and was a great success.”

The summit, too, was an entertainment success. For that, Trump is happy to praise Kim and collaborate in the pretense of landmark concessions. Thanks for watching.

Trump and Kim, Saletan theorizes, are "working together to pass of their toothless pact as a milestone. It's a con, and you're the mark."

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