US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, spoke face to face with one another in Singapore on Tuesday, June 12, 2018.
The meeting came about after a lot of sometimes confusing back-and-forth: Trump cancelled out on May 24, but then cancelled the cancellation in the days that followed. In the process, he seemed to deny the existence of one of his aides.
The New York Times reported (accurately, a videotape backs them up on this) that on May 26 a ‘senior White House official’ said that there wasn’t enough time to hold the North Korean summit on the originally scheduled date of June 12. Almost immediately POTUS tweeted that this was a lie, that nobody had said that, and in fact that the senior administration official in existence “doesn’t exist.”
The official’s name is Matthew Pottinger, he plainly does exist, and he had been introduced to the White House press corps with the preface that he should be referred to as a “senior White House official,” which is exactly the phrase the Times used.
At any rate, it appears Pottinger’s statements were misleading, the meeting was doable on June 12, as the necessary work was in fact done.
On June 6, Reuters carried a report that quoted another anonymous U.S. official, (or perhaps the same one?) that “this summit is being thrown together faster than any we’ve ever seen.”
The Summit’s Who and What
In addition to the President, the other participants on the US side of the table were: Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State; John F. Kelly, White House Chief of Staff; and John R. Bolton, National Security Adviser.
In addition to Kim, the other participants in the North Korean side of the table were: Ri Yong-Ho, the Minister of Foreign Affairs; Kim Yong-Chol, the Vice-Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea; and Ri Su-Yong, the Vice-Chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
So much for who was there. What was accomplished there, though, is a matter of continuing dispute. One tangible outcome was the cancellation of planned wargames that would have involved both US troops and troops of South Korea, a US ally for the last 68 years. The cancellation of those war games came as a surprise to the government of the south, in Seoul. It seems to have been a concession offered with no previous consultation with the South.
Now, let us ask our customary questions. How does the left see all this? And how does the right?
Left Wing View
There are at least three left-wing reactions to all of the above: it is a con job in which Kim and Trump are co-conspirators; it is a sign of emotional dysfunction on Trump’s part; or it is something even darker, a threat to what remains of the constitutional system in the US.
The first of those views is well expressed by a headline at Slate, the center-left website, “Trump’s deal with Kim Jong-un is a Con Job, and You’re the Mark.”
The story beneath that headline was written by William Saletan. He says, “Trump isn’t competing with Kim or even trying to win him over. He’s using Kim to compete for status with previous American presidents.”
The New York Times ran a prominent story about a North Korean propaganda film. The point of the story seems to be to confirm Saletan’s point: Trump and Kim are in this con together, and the common folks (of both countries) are on the receiving end.
Jon Wolfsthal, in The New Republic, wrote that the agreement on denuclearization — the original point for having such a meeting in the first place –is sufficiently vague that it will “leave the door open for Kim to do whatever he wants, and claim that it is consistent with what the two leaders talked about.”
An interview that aired on television Wednesday night, June 13, gave more weight to this sort of appraisal. The President, asked for his view on Kim’s human rights record, said, “He’s a tough guy,” and then went on to elucidate this toughness, which evidently includes being “very smart” and “a great negotiator.”
That carries us into the emotional dysfunction view, which maintains that Trump has a crush on Kim, and/or suffers from a fantasy of becoming as dictatorial in the US as Kim is in the NK.
But the darkest leftward view is that expressed by Edward-Isaac Dovere, writing at Politico, who makes the case that the seeming man-crush on Kim isn’t a fluke, but part of a wider strategy on making dictatorship seem normal and inevitable to Americans. Dovere writes, “Old guardrails become distant memories. Is this time that he declared himself above the law such a big deal, or is it old news already, since he also said it last week or last month or last year?”
Relatedly, there is on the left a Russia connection to the Singapore meeting and the Trump-Kim relationship. There are those who believe that the real point was to help Russia build a gas pipeline through North Korea into the South. So says a twitter denizen who calls himself “Venture Capital” and asks people to help support her #TrumpRussia research on GoFundMe.
Right Wing View
A little more than a year ago, conservative firebrand Ann Coulter tweeted, “Perhaps a workable compromise on North Korea would be: we allow Kim to develop only warheads capable of reaching Tijuana.”
That would make no sense to a ‘rocket scientist.’ After all, the shortest lines between North Korea and most of the United States pass through the arctic. The missiles won’t be coming up from the south, but down from the north, if they come. They will get here before they get to Tijuana!
But a political scientist would understand Coulter’s tweet readily enough. It says that Trump’s base doesn’t care all that much what havoc Kim could wreak elsewhere, so long as the United States stays safe, and so long as the POTUS focuses on building a wall just north of Tijuana.
How did conservatives react once the Trump/Kim meeting was a fact? In varied ways. Noah Rothman, writing in the neoconservative flagship journal Commentary, emphasizes that North Korea is “a prison in which up to 200,000 people are consigned to gulags.” Kim is running a “mafia enterprise disguised as a state.” From Rothman’s point of view, the very fact of this meeting in Singapore was a disgrace.
But the alt-right is very different from the neocons. At Breitbart, we’re told that Trump cut through the “stilted, scripted, sclerotic ways” of the diplomatic corps to do what had to be done. Breitbart is also delighted that the Singapore meeting was disliked by all the people and institutions that the folks at Breitbart dislike, including the state media of the People’s Republic of China.
Some on the right moved to defend Trump against the charge that he is being too nice to a brutal dictator. One conservative says on twitter that critics have to decide between two complaints. Either “Trump needs to denuclearize North Korea without starting a war,” or “Trump needs to treat Kim Jong Un poorly, not give him any legitimacy.” “You only get one,” he writes.
A Final Thought
But really: why assume critics can’t make both points? After all, no US President of either party ever negotiated with a leader of East Germany. Surely the end-game for North Korea should on some level be the same as the end game for East Germany was: not peace with the state, not even regime change, but regime disappearance. There is now only one Germany and its government is continuous with the one that used to be headquartered in Bonn. And that came about peacefully.
Should it not be a goal of US policy that there will in due course be only one Korea and that its government (whose capital would probably remain in Seoul) will have as little as possible to do with the government now in Pyongyang? Should we not ask ourselves, in connection with this summit, whether it has gotten the people of Korea closer to, or pulled them further from, that happy day?