24 February 2019
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un proved very skillful in getting concessions from US President Donald Trump during their summit in Singapore on June 12. Photo: Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un proved very skillful in getting concessions from US President Donald Trump during their summit in Singapore on June 12. Photo: Reuters

Why the Trump-Kim summit upsets S Korean conservatives

The rest of the world might still be ecstatic over the recent summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but as some of the South Korean sources whom I have known for a long time recently told me, some people in their country are actually upset about the outcome of the meeting.

In particular, some South Koreans feel that they have been shortchanged by North Korea and betrayed by the United States.

At the press conference after the summit on June 12, Trump defended the concessions he had made by arguing that he had to cater to “different voices” in North Korea and make things easier for his “new friend” Kim.

However, as my South Korean friends told me, using such an excuse at the negotiation table in order to get as many concessions as possible has been a familiar strategy used by Pyongyang over the past 20 years.

They said no experienced diplomat would ever take Kim’s word seriously, and that’s why they were simply dumbfounded that Trump appeared to have fallen for it.

North Korean diplomats and negotiators, on the other hand, are very well-versed on how to deal with their American counterparts, my friends said.

They have a deep understanding of the dynamics of factional politics in Washington, and are very good at playing one faction against the other in order to maximize their gains at the talks.

My South Korean friends pointed out that Choe Son-hui, the newly promoted deputy foreign minister of North Korea, is an expert in dealing with the Americans, and is a key advisor to Kim Jong-un on Pyongyang-Washington relations.

Before her promotion, she used to be the chief of the North America bureau within the North Korean foreign ministry, and was charged with overseeing the so-called Track Two Diplomacy with the US, i.e., Pyongyang’s secret talks with Washington held in Norway.

Many US diplomats who have dealt with Choe said she was so smart and well-versed that they often found themselves playing right into her hands at the negotiation table.

Another thing about the Trump-Kim summit at which some South Koreans are very dismayed is the US president’s unilateral decision to put the US-South Korean joint military drill on hold.

According to my South Korean sources, Trump’s decision to halt the military exercise not only has taken the Japanese and South Korean governments by surprise, but is also said to have caught the US State Department and the Pentagon totally off guard as well.

To make things worse, Trump has further irritated South Koreans by publicly referring to the annual joint military exercise as “very expensive and provocative war games”, a poor choice of words regarded by some South Koreans as both politically incorrect and insensitive.

The South Koreans are so upset at Trump’s remarks because over the years the annual joint military exercise has been of a defensive nature and has never been intended to provoke Pyongyang.

Calling the military exercise as “expensive and provocative” has definitely worked in Pyongyang’s favor, the South Koreans said.

His words have not only surrendered the moral high ground held by Washington and Seoul throughout the North Korea nuclear crisis, but have also undermined the justifications for holding the entire military drill.

Suffice it to say that any US state secretary appointed by an American president who belongs to the mainstream political elite in Washington would probably have been sacked immediately for using those words in public.

While some South Koreans feel more optimistic about the future of North-South relations after the summit, many conservatives are disgusted.

All of a sudden, they have awakened to the harsh fact that Trump is anything but sincere and determined in helping South Korea to resolve its security issues.

Instead, all he did was use the summit to his political advantage, both domestically and internationally.

Nor did Trump appear to have the real resolve to enforce the “complete, irreversible and verifiable” denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

South Korean conservatives might be right about Trump’s true intention.

For the US, keeping alive an authoritarian regime in Pyongyang that is secretly nuclear-capable, economically powerful and friendly to Washington and US businesses may well be in the best interests of Americans because it can give them substantial leverage over China, Japan and South Korea.

And as far as the South Koreans are concerned, the last thing they want is probably a North Korea that is secretly retaining its nuclear capabilities and undergoing rapid economic growth at the same time.

If that happened, it would prove even more difficult for the rest of the world to keep Pyongyang in line.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 14

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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