United States

Trump’s North Korea Bluff

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Kim Jong Un, That Obscure Object of Desire.

On June 13, at 5:45 a.m., the President of United States posted the following tweet: “Just landed – a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!”

As usual, President Trump used pompous words to try to position himself among the greatest presidents in the history of the United States. Trump assumed the tone of JFK, who in 1962 pulled the country back from the edge of war as an unprecedented Russian nuclear threat kept the world teetering on global destruction for 13 days. Contrary to the intensity of the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was never an imminent nuclear threat from North Korea, no matter how much President Trump likes capital letters. There was also no sigh of relief when Trump returned from the meeting with the North Korean dictator, a signed agreement in hand that, according to its beneficiary, saved America.

That the current American president is a mythomaniac is not news. Most of the media are calling Trump a liar daily and debunking his claims. If you want to get a pulse on what Americans think of their president, you need only to read the comments below his triumphant tweet, and you will see the state of confusion that currently dominates in this country. There is no doubt that talking, taking photos, and parading on a flag-strewn stage with a murderous dictator is better than the petty accusations, pathetic insults and further escalations between the two countries. But billing Singapore as “the meeting that will start a new and a better future” is as misleading as it is naive, dangerous even.

When trying to picture how the follow-up of the Singapore encounter might shape up, one does not need to pay much attention to political speculation. It’s enough to watch the handshakes and the body language, and listen to the reverential words, of the two leaders, both of whom don’t have the slightest fondness for democracy. The display was utterly depressing. The depression, however, is rooted in the fact that neither Trump nor Kim managed to drop a single phrase indicating any vision when discussing the future peace of the entire planet. It is the flattest of worlds, it seems. I can only imagine how the parents of young Americans feel when watching this; the insecurity that might grip them. Perhaps it is closer to horror.

Two weeks have passed, and Singapore seems to have taken its place in the oblivion of this presidency. The last time President Trump mentioned it was in the midst of his jet-lag, three days after landing home. On that occasion, he spent quite some time with the American media and produced another brilliant thought that would no doubt have to be included in his opera Magna. Commenting on his impressions of Kim Jong Un following their Singapore meeting, Trump told Fox News: “He’s the head of a country, and I mean he’s the strong head. Don’t let anyone think anything different. He speaks, and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.”

Brilliant and scary, especially when you recall that last year the President’s staff, members of his cabinet and closest collaborators, including Vice President Pence, were humiliated–along with a nation–when they were forced to praise President Trump during a televised cabinet meeting. One by one, they complimented his integrity, his message, his strength, his policies. Trump sat smiling, nodding in approval. I watched the scene flabbergasted, and wrote:

It was this pathetic scene–of shameless sycophantism–that reminded me more of the images coming from Pyongyang than those we’re familiar with out of Washington D.C. Every member of the government in that room expressed unironic praise for the Trump leadership. Luckily, there were no tears. The media reaction was uniform, saying that the scene was an act of undemocratic idolatry. It was worse than that. From every member of his government, Trump was asking, demanding, loyalty. The same loyalty he asked Comey for, but never got. All the secretaries, including Vice President Pence, had to swear that they will not abandon ship as Trump forced them to become his accomplices. There won’t be any tears at the end either. What this government risks provoking is bloodshed.

Trump’s despotic nature was not transmitted in Singapore. He, regardless of his praise of the “little rocket man,” was not illuminated or spellbound by Kim during their several hours of talks in Singapore. The love and sympathy expressed seems to be natural and innate to the authoritarian leaders like Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and (my god, did I ever think I would be saying this?) the American president.

In a piece full of quotes and examples that demonstrate and analyze Trump’s affinity for authoritarianism, and his envy of the North Korean dictator, The Washington Post quotes Eliot A. Cohen, a Trump critic and former senior State Department official under President George W. Bush. Cohen said: “Trump has classic traits of the authoritarian leader. The one that’s always struck me most is this gut instinct of people’s weaknesses and a corresponding desire to be seen as strong and respected and admired.”

There is another significant aspect of the extraordinary spectacle staged in Singapore: according to the New York Times, last summer an American businessman approached the Trump administration with an unusual proposition. Gabriel Schulze, who owns an equity firm in Singapore, “explained that a top North Korean official was seeking a back channel to explore a meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. The North Korean government wanted to talk to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and senior adviser.” Mr. Schulze, who lives in Singapore, explains the paper had built a network of contacts in North Korea on trips he had taken to develop business opportunities in the isolated state. The Times talked to Schulze, noting:

…the quiet outreach was but one step in a circuitous path that led to last week’s handshake between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim at a colonial-style island hotel in Singapore — a path that involved secret meetings among spies, discussions between profit-minded entrepreneurs, and a previously unreported role for Mr. Kushner, according to interviews with current and former American officials and others familiar with the negotiations.

It seems to me that Jared Kushner worked well as the back channel. There is the another New York Times article, from March this year, that confirms it:

The White House’s decision to use intelligence, rather than diplomatic, channels in communicating with the North Koreans speaks to the influence of Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director whom Mr. Trump chose this week to replace Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson. It also reflects the State Department’s diminished role in preparing for the riskiest encounter between an American president and a foreign leader in many years.

Mr. Pompeo, these officials said, has already been dealing with North Korean representatives through a channel that runs between the C.I.A. and its North Korean counterpart, the Reconnaissance General Bureau. And he has been in close touch with the director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, Suh Hoon, who American officials said brokered Mr. Kim’s invitation to Mr. Trump.

So let’s recap. According to the NYT one week ago, Gabriel Schulze hooked Jared Kushner and a North Korean source one year back. The president’s son-in-law then passed the contact to Mike Pompeo, then-director of the CIA, who in his turn took over the negotiations and also visited North Korea a couple of times. All of which leads to the conclusion that for at least a year the Trump administration and Pyongyang had an open and quite direct channel of communication that only a few–that is, the CIA and a narrow circle in the White House–knew about. Possibly, even Rex Tillerson, then Secretary of State, did not know about it or was fired and replaced because he was against it.

Most important is something else, though. The level of bluffing and acting this president is capable of is impressive. Just watch this video in which Donald Trump accuses the Kim Jong Un of being a “little rocket man,” promising to eliminate him. It was September 22, 2017, a few months after the back channel with North Korea was opened. Backchannel communications are not rare in diplomacy, especially when it comes to countries that do not have diplomatic relationships or are otherwise hostile to each other. It is, however, bizarre that “the North Koreans were following the example of the Chinese, who had early-on identified the 37-year-old husband of Ivanka Trump as a well-connected “princeling,” someone who could be a conduit to Mr. Trump and allow them to bypass the bureaucracy of the State Department,” as reported by the New York Times.

I always thought that there was a Chinese hand behind the opening of North Korea. I have no documentation to prove this, but reading the simple facts lead me to this conclusion or assumption. The Chinese perhaps opened the way, but later on could no longer control the Geni-us that escaped from the bottle. Who is this Genius? Is it Kim Jong Un or Donald Trump? Or both? Are they geniuses or monsters? Or both?

As far as China is concerned (there is no space here to explain the position of South Korea, Japan, and other countries in the region), let me quote James Stavridis, a retired United States Navy admiral, who describes the Chinese role the following way:

Chinese want a divided Korean Peninsula so they can maintain dominant influence in the north and check the U.S. influence in the south.

China will use the North Korea-U.S. summit to further these ambitions. For Beijing, the best outcome would be an agreed framework that puts off any actual relinquishment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons into the distant future. This will ensure the long-term survival of the Kim regime and the continuation of a divided peninsula.

Sometimes, and for a change, it is nice to be in the company of an admiral.

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