Last weekend, one of the most unexpected summits in world history took place at the Panmunjom Joint Security Area in the DMZ. President Trump’s impromptu invitation to meet with Chairman Kim Jong Un was accepted; this triggered a flurry of activity as the Presidents of South Korea and the United States headed north of Seoul for an unprecedented three-way summit. Whether or not you think the meeting will ignite any real progress is a matter up for discussion, however, the surrounding context is ripe for analysis, providing a window into the mindset of Pyongyang’s foreign policy and its understanding of how best to play Donald Trump.
Kim Jong Un met with Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump at Panmunjom this past weekend.
Something which will come as no surprise to anyone is this: Donald Trump has a passion for the opulent. This meeting, whilst it may have some positive, tangible impact, was a made-for-TV summit which painted the President as a peacemaker, ready to push aside the political establishment and make bold steps to make America great again etc etc…
In reality, this brash approach to diplomacy has yet to yield any results which experts and analysts would call ‘a success’. Trump is more preoccupied touting his ‘personal relationship’ with Kim Jong Un – something which the Koreans are already beginning to take advantage of. The Korean Central News Agency recently published an editorial regarding a letter sent to Kim Jong Un by Trump. KCNA reported the following:
“After reading the letter, the Supreme Leader of the Party, the state and the armed forces said with satisfaction that the letter is of excellent content. Appreciating the political judging faculty and extraordinary courage of President Trump, Kim Jong Un said that he would seriously contemplate the interesting content.”KCNA
Rodong Sinmun published a photo of Kim Jong Un reading the letter from Trump in his office (likely in the Central Committee Offices)
The extremely complimentary tone in which the article was written mirrors Trump’s own words about Kim Jong Un over the past year and the President has proven since then that the best way to get through to him is his ego. Pyongyang has been dealing with the US for years, although for the first time they are working opposite a leader who will, potentially, take the word of Kim Jong Un over his own intelligence organisations and advisers; perhaps John Bolton isn’t being complimentary enough.
This manipulation has dire consequences for the US administration at large. Increasingly, Pyongyang is attacking the US government’s attitude towards negotiations, often focusing largely on sanctions. However, the President is notably absent from these attacks. Trump seemingly has no problem with the DPRK accusing his administration of ‘hostile acts’ and ‘gangster-like’ behaviour so long as he personally is not targeted – this opens up the possibility that Pyongyang is hoping to drive a wedge between the President and his advisors; a smart move given that the more isolated the President feels from his own allies and the closer he feels with Kim Jong Un, the more likely he is to bypass the experts and make agreements based on gut instinct.
Trump has touted his personal relationship with Kim since their meeting in Singapore last year
This divide is already noticeable with National Security Advisor (and war hawk) John Bolton being sent to Mongolia rather than being present at Panmunjom at the weekend. Perhaps this was simply a precaution since Pyongyang’s disdain for Bolton is well documented, although as the President feels more confident with his ability to negotiate with Kim, he will likely become increasingly unwilling to take the hawkish Bolton’s advice into account before making decisions.
The more isolated Trump is, the easier he will be to manipulate since he appears to have a natural desire to be in charge and make decisions – if Pyongyang is smart, they will take advantage of this and continue this divisive policy until Trump agrees to lift some sanctions, against the advice of his administration.
For extra context surrounding the recent accusations of “hostile actions” by the DPRK, check out this NK News article by Oliver Hotham