SEOUL—With little more than a week to go before he meets again with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, President Donald Trump continues to live with his illusions and insist the rest of the world share them.
At a stream-of-consciousness encounter with the press on Friday, Trump claimed the prime minister of Japan wants to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize because he saved the world from war.
Trump told reporters that when he sat down with Barack Obama after his election victory in 2016, the outgoing president “told me he was so close to starting a big war with North Korea."
Yes indeed, said Trump, Obama “would've gone to war with North Korea… was ready to go to war.”
How’s that again?
This from the guy who, soon after his inauguration, indulged in incandescent rhetoric about “fire and fury” and “total annihilation” as Kim Jong Un ordered a sixth underground nuclear test and multiple missile tests. When not threatening, he was demeaning and provoking “little rocket man.” On Friday, Trump bragged about his macho language in 2017: “My [nuclear] button is bigger than yours, and my button works.”
Now, as if to underscore his success as a peacemaker, Trump unctuously addresses one of the world’s most brutal dictators as “Chairman Kim” in deference to his role as chairman of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, and talks a great deal about Kim no longer testing his nukes or his missiles.
But, here’s the thing: Kim, exuding confidence in his nuclear deterrence, hasn’t ordered any nuclear or missile tests since late 2017—when he made it clear he could hit the continental United States. Obama’s objective, and the supposed aim of Trump’s sturm und drang, was to get Kim to give up those nukes altogether. That hasn’t happened—and doesn’t look like it’s going to.
As in so many other flights of presidential fancy, Trump’s claim to have rescued the U.S. from a Korean apocalypse is easily disproved.
“Obama did not talk war,” says Scott Snyder, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Korea expert. Indeed, said Snyder, Obama Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who advocated preventive strikes in 2006, when he was a private citizen, ruled those out as “a possible option” 10 years later on the eve of another North Korean long-range Taepodong missile launch. Obama “was never on the verge of starting any war with North Korea, large or small,” John Brennan, CIA director during his presidency, told NBC. “We were not on the brink of war with North Korea in 2016,” tweeted Ben Rhodes, a foreign policy adviser in the Obama White House.
“An interesting pivot,” said Victor Cha, Korea expert on the National Security Council when George W. Bush was president and now a professor at Georgetown. “I don’t think we were near the brink of war with Obama.” Rather, “We were near the brink of war in the first 12 months of the Trump administration” though “that dangerous state of affairs at that time was not entirely Trump’s fault despite his fire and fury rhetoric and actions.”
Cha believes that Hillary Clinton, if elected, “would have faced the same problem, but Trump certainly exacerbated it with his tweets.”
After acting like a war-hungry leader in his first year in the White House, Trump, in his pursuit of his legacy as the man who kept us out of another war on the Korean peninsula, is now making one gesture after another in deference to North Korean sensitivities as next week’s seance with Kim approaches.
One portent of concessions to come: use of the initials “FFVD” in place of “CVID.” That semantic switch represents a serious climb-down for American policy.
The original stated objective of Trump’s engagement with Kim was “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” abbreviated by Korea hands to CVID. But the North Koreans hated that. So now Trump’s negotiators talk about “final fully verified denuclearization,” or FFVD.
“FFVD is the New CVID,” said Snyder. “The U.S. government has replaced CVID with FFVD as its official formulation!”
The shift in initials may seem like a technicality but goes with Trump’s increasing insistence that he averted a war others might have started. “If I had not been elected president of the United States,” he declaimed in his State of the Union address, “we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.”
As America’s commander-in-chief, Trump wants the world to believe his proudest moment may have been to avoid the war-that-wasn’t after giving every appearance he wanted to start it—a posture he now presents as part of a brilliant “mad man” strategy. “People said, ‘Trump is crazy!’” he told his audience on Friday.
“For the arsonist to portray himself as the fireman is disingenuous,” said Evans Revere, former senior U.S. diplomat in Seoul and Washington. Then Trump made “a series of concessions” at the first Kim Summit, in Singapore, while Kim “did virtually nothing.”
Revere initially saw FFVD instead of CVID as the word play of “a new team wanting to use its own term” but soon became “convinced the new phrase represents a significant change.”
Now “the administration is getting us used to the idea that denuclearization, if it ever happens, is going to take a very, very long time,” he said. “Translation: We are about to accept the fact that we will be living with a nuclear-armed North Korea for the foreseeable future.”
In coldly realistic terms, the threat level has hardly changed since Trump began talking wildly about North Korea, whether threatening fire and fury or declaring his “love” of the erstwhile “little rocket man.”
Now Trump’s penchant for self-congratulatory rhetoric is setting off almost as many alarm bells in Seoul as the incendiary language he bandied about less than two years ago. The fear is that, while fighting off his critics in Washington, he may be eager to give way to demands for easing sanctions and sign a “peace declaration” formally “ending” the Korean War even though fighting stopped with a truce in 1953. The consequence would surely be mounting pressure to reduce or remove the 28,500 U.S. troops still in South Korea.
“I am not optimistic at all,” said Han Tae-kyu, chairman of the Korean Council on Foreign Relations. Trump could be “trapped” into agreement, he said.
Certainly that’s what happened at his first summit with Kim in Singapore last June when he and Kim signed a vacuous joint statement committing North Korea “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”–a circumlocution the North sees as including nukes on American planes and ships that provide a “nuclear umbrella” for the South.
Trump also announced at a rambling press conference in Singapore that the U.S. would not join the South in annual war games—a shock to the Pentagon, which had no warning of Trump’s gift to Kim. U.S. and South Korean officers now look with dread toward Trump’s next declaration about war games, supposed to be set for this Spring. Steve Tharp, a retired army intelligence officer who’s been following the ups and downs of crises on the Korean peninsula for decades, scoffs at grand gestures toward reconciliation. “To agree in principle means nothing,” said Tharp. “Having a summit with a North Korean leader is a negative. Trump doesn’t get that.”
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, pressing for reconciliation with the North, reached a deal with Kim at their last meeting in Pyongyang in September for opening the Joint Security Area at the truce village of Panmunjom to visitors from both sides. Now, Tharp noted, the JSA is closed while North Korea insists South Korea, not the U.N. Command, take charge of its side of the JSA.
Understandably, Tharp is dubious about any final statement that affirms the Korean War is officially over. “Even if they come up with a peace agreement, it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “An end-of-war statement means we’re not fighting anymore.”
That’s a commentary on the futility of talks going on between the new U.S. nuclear envoy, Stephen Biegun, and North Korean interlocutors. “Tricky” and “difficult” are adjectives most often heard from those in on the pre-summit palaver.
There’s also a report they may be coming to a deal on “a timeline” for step-by-step denuclearization.
Uh oh. We’ve heard that one before. One-time envoy Christopher Hill, who honestly believed he was getting somewhere over several years of talks, came up with a deal for a “timeline” more than 10 years ago. Of course, the North Koreans never observed it while Hill went around saying plaintively they’d “gone back on their word.”
No kidding, Chris.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Translation: Don’t hold your breath for dramatic results when Trump and Kim meet in Hanoi at the end of this month. Do brace for a blast of hot air as Trump claims a breakthrough like we’ve never seen before.