Trump’s reality show and the Korean Peninsula
Mar. 08, 2019
Global Korean Post
By Kim Young-jun
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presented another surprise ending in their summit in Vietnam. If their summit was a reality TV series, something Trump has mastered, the event saw a great ending to its second season because global viewers never expected this cliffhanger and will eagerly await the next season, or in this case, the next summit. For those who want to understand why Trump snubbed an agreement this time, they should simply put themselves in his shoes.
The top priority of any politician is to get reelected, and this is crucial for Trump. He feels the need to serve a second term because of the possibility that he might go to prison, a scenario many of his political rivals have warned of. Naturally, he considers the conclusion of a historical agreement with Kim as a political achievement that none of his predecessors in the White House could pull off. Unsurprisingly, according to Richard Haass, president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, foreign policy begins at home. And for politicians, the main targets of their foreign policy are domestic voters. Trump now faces many challenges in his reelection campaign including his alleged collusion with Russia and public opposition to a border wall. Thus a simple question that must be understood is when the optimal timing for a historical agreement with North Korea is within Trump’s political schedule. The prime time for an accord is clearly not now because the media is not only covering the testimony of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former confidante, but also is likely underestimating and even criticizing whatever the president agreed on with Kim during their last summit. Trump started to emphasize that speed is not important in dealings with the North before and during the Hanoi summit. And yes, Trump should be in no hurry.
To the North’s leader Kim, the most important thing is not speedy relief from sanctions but Trump’s reelection to maintain consistency in negotiations with the U.S. If Trump loses the White House to a Democratic candidate, the latter is unlikely to utilize the former’s approach toward Kim. Even if the North Korean leader reaches an agreement with Trump, it will easily become a useless piece of paper if a president other than Trump disagrees with the accord. Kim clearly knows this due to the precedent set by the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran. During the Kim-Trump summit, the American president complained why the media continued to cover Cohen’s testimony during his “significant” summit in Vietnam. A master of reality TV, Trump will likely choose the best timing to conclude a historical agreement with Pyeongyang to maximize the effects of his performance for his reelection campaign. As expected, the North’s demands did not include removal of all nuclear facilities, weapons, materials and knowledge. Trump’s team had expected and prepared for all possible scenarios before the summit.
So again, when would be the best timing for a historical agreement with North Korea according to Trump’s political schedule? If I was him, I would pick around the end of this year, when the U.S. Democratic Party picks its presidential candidate and about one year before the American presidential election is held. The period between the first season of Trump’s reality show — the summit in Singapore in June last year — to the second — the one in Vietnam — was eight months. Simply put, the next summit, or the third season, will probably take another eight or so months in coming around the end of this year. If Trump and Kim conclude a historical agreement by year’s end, or about a year before the U.S. presidential election, it will minimize the conventional effects of the Democratic candidate. At that time, if Kim offers a few more concessions, this will portray Trump as a good negotiator. The American president will also be considered a hero if he reaches a historical agreement with North Korea. Another bonus could be if he receives the Nobel Peace Prize. So by deciding not to sign an agreement in Vietnam, Trump predicted lower expectations and negative prospects for a bilateral agreement from the media and experts for the next few months. This plan is great for him because the effects of an agreement between Trump and Kim during the third or fourth season of Trump’s reality show will prove far more dramatic and present a historical milestone to world viewers, especially American voters.
Nonetheless, Trump’s wait-and-see strategy to ensure the best timing for a historical agreement with the North does and will not stop the road to peace on the Korean Peninsula. In this context, Kim’s smile when he and Trump say goodbye at a summit venue serves as a significant trailer for a happy ending to this reality show. It’s no secret that the most important thing to a politician when gearing up for an election is the timing of a major accomplishment to maximize the effects of his or her performance. So viewers, in this case the world, need not be too negative and just wait and see what happens.
Kim Young-jun is a professor at the Korea National Defense University.