If there was ever a US politician who singularly encapsulates the essence of style guiding substance in its most unapologetic form, that man would be Donald Trump. Far from the carefully stage managed Obama years, Trump’s administration is less like the scripted affair of recent American leaders and more like reality-TV politics with geopolitical ramifications.
Even though the two Korean states themselves, beginning with the DPRK’s extension of an olive branch to Seoul in January of 2018, are along with China and Russia largely responsible for the appearance of a realistic peace process for Korea, when it was announced that Donald Trump would meet personally with Kim Jong-un, Trump’s increasingly fanatical diehard supporters rushed to assign exclusive credit for any potential success in the peace process to Trump and Trump alone.
In spite of this arrogant posturing by Trump supporters, including the ludicrous attempt to nominate Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize before having actually accomplished anything (aka Obama all over again), both Korean states, China and Russia did not make any protestations about how the pro-Trump factions in the US were spinning the narrative as a unilateral Trump victory. This was in keeping with the win-win model that is more concerned with results than with optics or propaganda. After all, in opening Chinese markets to more foreign goods, including those from the US, China has done what it said it was going to do anyway, but nevertheless, China has used this to make Trump walk-back from his tariff war and in so doing, hand Trump a defeat disguised as a victory.
So long as an atmosphere of good will tinged with arrogance existed on the US side, all the other concerned parties in the Korean peace process were willing to overlook Trump being Trump and his domestic supporters being themselves. This all changed when US National Security Adviser John Bolton threatened a “Libyan style” scenario (aka lopsided disarmament deal followed by a brutal regime change war) for the DPRK with the added humiliating demand that all of Pyongyang’s remaining nuclear weapons and missiles must be brought to the US.
This elicited a furious reaction from the DPRK which was shortly followed by Kim Jong-un’s seemingly unscheduled informal trip to China after which the DPRK continued to criticise the US attitude to peace, particularly in respect of Bolton’s provocative remarks. This in turn led to South Korea volunteering to play a role of “mediator” between the US and DPRK in a clear sign that many in Seoul are privately worried that Bolton and his fellow neocon Nikki Haley might sabotage a peace process from which South Korea has potentially the most to gain. Now Russia has joined with its fellow Asian powers in condemning the shift in US attitudes towards Korea which most recently saw Trump confess that the 12 June meeting with Kim may be postponed. According to Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova,
“The fact is, when the US threatens North Korea, Pyongyang, with a ‘Libyan scenario,’ they threaten not only Pyongyang. They threaten everyone, the whole region. And it is based on the history of the ‘Libyan scenario”.
This confirms that Bolton’s remarks regarding a “Libyan” style peace process have infuriated every party (both the direct and indirect parties) to the Korean peace process, leaving America isolated from a situation that just weeks ago many Americans thought was a unilateral Trump victory.
It would appear that Trump himself is also disappointed if not angry with Bolton as shortly after Bolton’s Libya remarks, Trump appeared to disavow the statements in a rambling White House interview. Since then, confusion has become the overriding factor in Washington in respect of Korea. What seems clear though, based on Trump’s own patterns of “negotiation” is that he is more smoke and mirrors than he is a hard hitter. The trade war on China ended before it began and Trump ultimately surrendered his zero-sum mentality to China’s win-win model. For all the “fire and fury” surrounding the issue of Iran, the US has admitted that its “new”(aka old) anti-Iranian strategy will be limited to harsh sanctions and more provocations of alleged Iranian targets in Syria, as opposed to the full-scale war on Iran that “Israel” would like the US to fight.
When it comes to Korea, Trump stated it would be an “honour” to met with Kim Jong-un as early as May of 2017. Months later Trump was threatening to destroy the DPRK at the UN General Assembly while childishly mocking the DPRK’s leadership. Then when the meeting between Trump and Kim was scheduled it was back to warm words about the potential for investment in the DPRK along with rounds of self-congratulatory pomp.
Just as both of Trump’s missile attacks on Syria did little material damage but nevertheless allowed Trump to pose as a victor in the aftermath of the attacks, it seems clear enough that Trump wants the honour of being the first sitting US President to shake hands with a North Korean head of state. After that, he can then tell CNN “I told you so”, watch his poll ratings go up, pat himself on the back and let the real negotiations begin which will almost certainly be dominated not by what the US wants but what China is able to effectively arrange and guarantee..
In other words, Trump wants the “photo-op of the century” – a chance to smile for the cameras with a DPRK head of state, something his “loser” predecessors were never able to accomplish. But for those around Trump, the issue is becoming about how to turn the optics of a Trump victory into a headache for the DPRK, South Korea, China and Russia, four countries that seriously want an even handed and mutually satisfying Korean peace process.
In summary, Trump wants a Kim Jong-un selfie, China, Russia, and the two Korean states want genuine peace and John Bolton’s neocon wing in Washington wants hostility against everyone else, including against Donald Trump.