SEOUL—The U.S. Eighth Army Band played a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Come Marching In,” and U.S. ambassador Harry Harris, resplendent in a double-breasted dark grey pin-stripe suit, mixed and mingled with the thousand or so guests.
The occasion was the annual Independence Day July 4 bash staged by the American embassy two weeks early this year to get it out of the way before President Donald Trump heaves into view this weekend for yet another exercise in summitry focusing on, what else, North Korea’s nuclear program.
“It’s exciting,” was about all Harris, a retired admiral who commanded U.S. forces in the Pacific before coming here a year ago, would say. When Trump arrives Saturday he will have just done two days palavering, including a portentous sidelines seance with China’s President Xi Jinping, at the G20 Summit in Osaka.
There’s good reason for the excitement. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, who will also be in Osaka, would hope when he hosts Trump in Seoul to talk him into serious planning for a third summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un as a chance to recover from the disaster of their summit in Hanoi in February.
It is not coincidental that Kim wrote what Trump said was a “beautiful letter” as Kim was about to meet Xi in Pyongyang last week. Apart from happy birthday wishes, the contents of the letter have not been divulged, but Xi presumably urged Kim to get back together with Trump face to face. Kim might have sent his latest billet-doux earlier—Trump’s birthday was June 14. No problem. Trump was happy to respond with an “excellent” letter full of “interesting” words, according to Kim. Clearly the North Korean leader wanted to hear what Xi had to say before getting back to POTUS for more.
What might the Trumpster and the Kimster have been telling one another? Neither has released the texts, but speculation was rampant at the lavish July 4 blast at Seoul’s Grand Hyatt as guests sampled American-style fare ranging from baked macaroni to burgers and franks. Wouldn’t it be great, asked the cognoscenti, if Trump and Kim were to meet in the truce village of Panmunjom on the North-South line 40 miles north of here before Trump flies back home on Sunday?
Cocktail patter took on the force of such a strong rumor that an unnamed U.S. official felt compelled to issue a formal denial, according to Seoul’s Yonhap news agency, saying simply there were “no plans” for such a meeting. "The president's there to see President Moon,” the official was quoted as saying.
None of which stopped anyone from speculating on what would certainly be an historic photo-op: the spectacle of Trump and Kim shaking hands on the line in the joint security area (JSA) at Panmunjom. Some even were placing small bets—odds ranging from a thousand to one to maybe one in five.
“In a normal world, the chance would be zero,” says David Straub, a former senior diplomat in the U.S. embassy here, “but because Donald Trump doesn’t know the rules, much less play by them, the possibility can’t be totally excluded.” Even so, he says, “I wouldn’t put the odds above one in a hundred.”
How, Straub asks, could Trump “really risk another substance-less summit meeting with a man who allows his people no freedom and who murders his own closest relatives?”
Steve Tharp, a retired army officer who’s been following the confrontation of forces on the Korean peninsula for most of his career, is barely more optimistic.
“I would say that there is a chance for a last-minute JSA [joint security area] summit, but I would put it at 10 percent or less right now,” he says. “The problem is that Kim Jong Un can't take another diplomatic failure like the Vietnam summit.”
If the two were to meet more or less spontaneously, the JSA would be so logical. It’s a theoretically neutral zone but very clearly divided between North and South. It was across that line that Kim stepped on April 27 of last year into the arms of Moon, who escorted him to Peace House on the south side of the zone for their historic first summit.
If the photo-op of Moon and Kim grabbed attention, just think of the world-wide burst of publicity that a shot of Trump and Kim showing their mutual affection would engender. Ok, a photo-op is not a summit, but atmospherics is all part of the game and nobody loves those that stuff more than Donald J. Trump.
We might know more, Tharp notes, if Trump and/or Kim were to release the contents of their letters. Then too, if standard tours to Panmunjom are cancelled on Friday or Saturday, he says, “that could be another indicator.”
In any case it’s now being widely reported that, at a minimum, Trump is expected to pay a visit to Panmunjom as American presidents routinely have done over the years, looking out from Freedom House on the South Korean side across the small building straddling the line where the Korean War truce was signed on July 27, 1953.
A White House official told CNN, "We're not going into details of the President's schedule yet. There are some things that are still coming together."
No one would be more pleased than Moon to see Trump’s stopover here end with Kim coming on down from Pyongyang for a hug and a handshake. The whole point of his meeting Trump would be to say how much he supports the alliance with the U.S.—and how fervently he’s hoping for reconciliation between the U.S. and North Korea, maybe in the form of a declaration saying the Korean War is really over.
“The love letters between Trump and Kim have revived hopes,” says Evans Revere, who has held top diplomatic positions dealing with Korea in both Seoul and Washington. “While the impasse between Washington and Pyongyang on denuclearization remains, the two leaders are keen not to close the door on renewed dialogue. Both men have a shared interest in preserving the illusion of possible denuclearization.”
So what’s the problem? There are, he says, “no signs that North Korea is inclined to accept the U.S. definition of denuclearization, which it roundly rejected in Hanoi, together with the U.S. proposal for an agreement on a timetable and road map for denuclearization.”
Under those circumstances, “it’s hard to be optimistic,” says Revere. “Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that the G-20, the Trump visit, and the love letters may lead to a resumption of working-level talks.”
Those talks are not out of the question. The U.S. nuclear envoy on Korea, Stephen Biegun, gets here two days before Trump for meetings with top South Korean officials, and it’s conceivable they will lead to contact with North Koreans before he goes back to Washington with Trump on Sunday.
“Kim is determined to exploit U.S.-China rivalry to benefit his economy while Trump hopes to leverage his personal relationship with Kim toward North Korea’s denuclearization,” says Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Woman’s University here in Seoul. “That’s why we see this movement before Trump visits Asia and meets Xi at the G20. The Trump-Moon summit immediately afterwards will allow the allies to project a coordinated policy for advancing both denuclearization and peace with North Korea.”
Trump and Moon will no doubt give every appearance of seeing eye to eye, but what would Trump and Kim have to say that’s new as long as the U.S. sticks to sanctions and Kim sticks to his nukes? That question, which sank the Hanoi talks, won’t get resolved this weekend. But Trump and Kim simply shaking hands on the North-South line would go far to making up for the earlier debacle.