SINGAPORE – The media center in the drab concrete building called “the Pit”—it’s part of the annual Formula One race course—closed abruptly at 6 p.m. the day after the summit here between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. The screens that showed that bizarre promotional video put together by the White House, “Two Men, Two Heroes, One Destiny,” had gone dark. Most of the 2,500 accredited journalists scattered to their home bases around the world while the “historic” handshake receded into history.
The story of the future—of “destiny”—had begun to unfold hours earlier as North Korean state media told a tale very different from that pushed by President Trump in his long and sometimes incoherent post-parley, post-video press conference. Judging from the headlines in Pyongyang, the major takeaway from “the summit of the century” is that Trump fell for one of history’s more enormous diplomatic confidence games.
In a report that Kim could have dictated personally, Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) brought to a fairly jarring halt the spin Trump had tried to put on the summit.
While Trump was patting himself on the back for having taken “a big step back from potential nuclear catastrophe,” about the first thing Kim did after getting home was to demand that the U.S. cancel the war games involving U.S. and South Korean forces. “Trump understands,” KCNA dutifully reported.
Indeed he did. In Trump’s extraordinary press conference he said he was calling off the annual war games that North Korea for years has denounced as “provocative.” And he went one better. They are not just “provocative,” he conceded, they are “expensive”—a term the North Koreans had not thought to use.
With such remarks, Trump seemed blissfully unaware that the U.S. and South Korea have been staging war games ever since the real war ended in a truce in 1953. They’re all about honing defenses against North Korean troops massed just above the 150-mile-long military demarcation line between the two Koreas. Part of the North Korean deployment is a vast, deeply dug in artillery array that could inflict enormous damage and huge casualties in Seoul, the nearby port of Incheon and the surrounding province, home to 25 million people, half the South’s population and as many as live in the North.
The 28,500 U.S. troops now in South Korea would be far too few to counter a North Korean offensive. But South Korea’s 600,000 troops, equipped with modern weapons—and supported by the Americans—are believed capable of defending the South against the North’s less well equipped, underfed 1.2 million troops. It’s precisely to coordinate U.S. air, naval, and ground fire with South Koreans that the U.S. military sees periodic exercises as essential
Judging from Trump’s remarks, he may not have have been briefed on the threat posed by North Korea‘s conventional forces, which could kill hundreds of thousands of people, but he congratulated himself for avoiding a holocaust in which 25-30 million people might die in a nuclear attack.
Anyone can see a full transcript of Trump’s press conference, but it would be interesting to know exactly what he and Kim were talking about in private. Was there a recorder going, was someone taking notes? Trump at the end of his press conference said he actually wasn’t sure.
That leaves unanswered whether Trump reassured Kim about cancelling the war games in their 28 minutes of one on one—just them and their interpreters—or did that great topic get out on the table while both of them were joined by their top people?
We do know who was there. On Trump’s side, to his immediate left, sat Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And one seat down was John Bolton, the hawkish national security adviser reviled by Pyongyang after he dared suggest a Libyan-style solution to rid North Korea of its nukes.
It’s difficult to believe Bolton would have endorsed such an assurance about joint military exercises, but he was in no position to stare balefully at Trump, much less give him a slight nudge, while Trump gazed straight on at his new friend, Kim, across the table. Someday, perhaps, Bolton or Pompeo may reveal what really was said, but we’ll have to wait until they lose their jobs before they’re going to say.
Conspicuously absent from the conference room was Secretary of Defense James Mattis. And it appears Trump had not bothered to talk to him about his views on U.S. troop strength in South Korea, much less military exercises, before walking into what appeared very much like a trap set by Kim.
In any case, as The Daily Beast reported on Tuesday, from the Pentagon to the commanders on the ground in South Korea, the news was met with confusion and consternation.
Meanwhile, we have North Korea’s KCNA to thank for the version Kim wants the world to accept. Kim “clarified the stand,” said KCNA, “that if the U.S. side takes genuine measures for building trust in order to improve the DPRK-U.S. relationship, the DPRK, too, can continue to take additional good-will measures of next stage commensurate with them.”At the crux of the discussion, as KCNA made clear, were not only the “war games” but also sanctions imposed by the U.S. and U.N. in retaliation for the North’s tests of missiles and nuclear warheads, most recently last September.
"Trump expressed his intention to halt the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, which the DPRK side regards as provocation, over a period of good-will dialogue between the DPRK and the U.S,” said KCNA (putting the “south” in South Korea in lower case). The U.S. said the dispatch, should also “offer security guarantees to the DPRK and lift sanctions against it along with advance in improving the mutual relationship through dialogue and negotiation."
If Trump really believed that Kim, almost immediately after landing, was about to take the first steps toward “complete denuclearization,” he was in for a rude awakening.
Considering that North Korea has repeatedly resisted and avoided deals for jettisoning its nukes, no one should have been surprised. KCNA did not mention the word “nuclear” at all in its report.
As for sanctions, Trump was on safer ground. He did say in his press conference that they would remain “in effect” at least until North Korea had done something about its nukes. As The Daily Beast noted previously, Trump seems to think Pyongyang would only have to do away with about 20 percent of its nuclear program to start getting sanctions relief.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, overjoyed to have seen Trump meeting Kim at the summit so soon after he and Kim had met twice, on April 27 and May 26, at the truce village of Panmunjom, did not welcome Trump’s press conference performance with enthusiasm.
Moon, who has said U.S. troops should stay where they are and has not opposed military exercises, first needed to know what the hell Trump was talking about.
“For now, there still is a need to find out the exact meaning and intention of President Trump's remarks,” said spokesman Kim Eui-hyon, “However,” he said in his carefully crafted statement, “as long as serious discussions are held between North Korea and the United States on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and establishment of peace, we believe we need to consider various ways to further move forward such dialogue.”
The Japanese were not so circumspect. Given that Japan remains well within range of North Korea’s mid-range and short-range missiles, the security implications are obvious as long as Pyongyang holds on to them and its weapons of mass destructions. (Let’s not forget chemical and biological weapons.) As Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera pointed out, the joint exercises Trump wants to phase out are part of a much bigger picture. “The drills and the U.S. military stationed in South Korea play a vital role in East Asia’s security,” he said.
The Chinese, of course, were tickled pink.
“It is fair to say that the relevant approach and initiative proposed by China played a positive and constructive role in getting the situation on the peninsula to where it is now,” gloated Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
If there was any winner, beside Kim, that honor had to go to China’s President Xi Jinping. With the prospect of an abrupt drawdown in U.S. strength in Korea, and maybe Japan as well, the Chinese had clear sailing ahead for expanding influence and authority in East Asia, from the Korean peninsula to the South China Sea.