Chung Eui-yong arrived at the White House with an invitation. He wanted to talk to President Donald J. Trump about not repeating mistakes from the past. However, South Korea believes that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was sincere about talking with the American president and ending his nuclear program. Kim had told South Korea that if Trump would join him in a summit meeting, they could create an historic breakthrough.
The president accepted the invitation immediately. This reaction shocked Chung, the officials who had traveled with him and the Americans gathered in the Oval Office. It was assumed by all that Trump would take time to discuss the idea with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Lt. Gen H.R. McMaster before making a decision. However, they did warn Trump, telling him that there are risks and downsides to this summit. Trump brushed them off, but let the leaders know he understood.
The New York Times reported, “A president with no prior foreign policy experience takes on a festering conflict that has vexed the world for years with a blend of impulse and improvisation, and with no certain outcome.” Trump went from shouting childish insults and threatening nuclear war to the validation of the presidential meeting.
The paper claims that if the meeting actually takes place (and they do not believe it will) that there are too many challenges for the unpredictable leaders to come to a resolution. The history between North Korea and the United States is filled with suspicion, misunderstanding, and broken promises. Too much to overcome in one summit.
Regardless, Trump boasts his reputation as a deal maker. He believes he can accomplish what no other president before him could.
Why the Change of Heart for Kim and Trump?
Throughout his first year as president, Trump has stacked economic sanctions on North Korea, threatened nuclear war, referred to Kim as “Little Rocket Man,” and said he would destroy the Asian country.
Kim called Trump “a mentally deranged U.S. dotard,” stated he has a nuclear button on his desk to launch missiles that would reach the U.S. Trump responded with a Tweet that said his button was larger and more powerful.
Talks between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in about the Winter Olympics went well. This is the focus of Moon, who is hopeful the summit between Kim and Trump will fare just as well.
Pence and Trump at the Olympics
At the opening ceremony, on Feb. 9, 2018, Vice President Mike Pence and Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong were sent from their perspective countries. Pence was told there could be a potential meeting at the Olympics if “he would tone down his message, not talk about sanctions, not meet with defectors, and not bring Fred Warmbier. Warmbier’s son Otto was the American student who died soon after being released from prison in North Korea.
Pence agreed to show good faith and the meeting was canceled. Taking the hard-line position, Pence did not come to his feet when the joint Korean team entered for the Olympic opening ceremonies. He also refused to greet Kim’s sister, who apparently was only 10 feet away. This was the stance Pence believed Trump wanted him to take.
His failure to stand was received as an insult by Moon and the South Korean people. This undercut the solidarity Pence wanted to show for an ally. Prior to the insult Moon had been determined to bring together the Americans and the North Koreans. Instead Moon treated Kim’s sister to a lavish luncheon at the Blue House.
Moon met with her for three hours. He wanted to meet with Kim to improve relations but there was a limit to how far Moon would go without some progress in the denuclearization of North Korea. Moon urged North Korea to talk to the U.S. quickly, so they would not lose the momentum from the spirit of the Olympics.
After Pence’s unfortunate optics and missed opportunity, Ivanka Trump attended the closing ceremonies of the Games. She had dinner with Moon at the Blue House and Trump briefed him on the new sanctions the president wanted to impose on North Korea. Then she made a public statement to reporters saying the U.S. intended to apply “maximum pressure.”
Trump spent the last two days of the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. One official said that she was forceful and meticulously went over the seating plan and the timing of arrivals to avoid any potentially awkward issues.
She offered a smiling face and a more open image, which was more accepted. She stood for the South Korean athletes, who entered the arena separately from the North Koreans. Trump also posed for photographs with famous Korean stars.
South Korea Visits North Korea
Last week, Moon sent South Korean National Security Advisor Chung and National Intelligence Service Director Suh Hoon to Pyongyang for two days. Upon arrival, the two aides were taken to a guesthouse on the riverside. There rooms were equipped with internet and access to foreign television channels, including CNN. They even had the privilege of visiting South Korean sites on the internet, which is rare.
That evening, Chung and Suh were taken in limousines to Azalea Hall in the Workers’ Party headquarters to Kim’s office. They were the first South Koreans to be allowed into the hall since the Korean War.
Kim laid out his proposal: open discussions with the U.S. on denuclearizing North Korea, suspending nuclear and missile testing during the talks, and the understanding that the U.S. and South Korea will continue their annual joint exercises for the military.
Kim came across as a confident leader. He had been following foreign news media. He was aware how he was depicted and laughed about it. He even studied Moon’s speeches toward North Korea and joked about his missile launches waking Moon early in the morning.
Kim agreed to open a direct hotline to Moon to continue to work on improving relations. He said, “Now if working-level talks are deadlocked and if our officials act like arrogant blockheads, President Moon can just call me directly and the problem will be solved.” Kim said he was eager to have a summit meeting with South Korea. Kim will go to Panmunjom for the summit with Moon.
Their friendly meeting continued until after 10 p.m. and included much laughter. After the advisers returned to Seoul and briefed Moon, Chung called General McMaster to deliver a message from Kim to Trump.
South Korea Visits the United States
On March 8, Chung and Suh flew to Washington for a meeting at the White House. The two met separately with McMaster and CIA Director Gina Haspel. Later, they met with a large group of White House officials. Trump was supposed to meet with the advisors on Friday but called them all into the Oval Office.
The team was not surprised by Kim’s request for a meeting. Intelligence agencies had already informed the team of Kim’s wishes before the South Koreans arrived. Trump did not tell Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson that he was going to agree to the meeting, but Trump did talk to him on the phone before the meeting.
The president was so eager to meet with Kim that the summit was discussed to possibly be as early as April. However, the South Koreans suggested the meeting follow the summit between Moon and Kim. The target for the meeting is set for May.
The South Koreans were surprised Trump agreed so quickly, then it was suggested a public announcement be made from the White House. Chung used McMaster’s office to write a statement in collaboration with the Americans. Then Moon was called for his approval, and for the first time, Trump went to the White House briefing room to tell reporters there would soon be an announcement.
The announcement was made from the White House driveway to appease some of Trump’s advisors. Visitors generally speak from the driveway but is was still unusual for a foreign official to announce a presidential decision.
Many in the Trump administration, the Pentagon, and allies learned of the meeting through news reports.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and McMaster urged the president to consider the risks of accepting the offer. The New York Times interview officials from South Korea, the U.S., China, and Japan. They all said this was characteristic of the president and his approach to foreign affairs.
On March 10, Trump stated that he believes the meeting will go well and he is confident North Korea will keep its promise to stop weapons testing during the summit.
By Jeanette Smith
The New York Times: Trump’s Abrupt ‘Yes’ to North Korea: The 45 Minutes That Could Alter History
The Hill: Trump accepted offer to join North Korea summit on the spot: report
Image Courtesy of (stephan)’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License