LINGERING UNCERTAINTY ABOUT TRUMP’S SUMMITS WITH XI AND KIM
International politics is dictated by how television coverage manipulates it.
A case in point is the recent coverage of the G20 Summit in Osaka, which unfortunately failed to adequately convey the adroit leadership Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe demonstrated as chairman of the conference. Instead, television focused its attention on the meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un that followed in Panmunjom, virtually erasing any memory of all that had gone on at the summit itself. Such is the power of television.
At 15:45 on June 30, as Trump started striding slowly from “Freedom House” on the South Korea side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) towards the border line separating the two Koreas, Kim walked towards his American counterpart from the North Korean side.
The two leaders faced each other across the border warmly, exchanging pleasantries while sharing a symbolic handshake. When Trump finally walked over into the North Korean side of the DMZ, I found myself breaking into a big smile. Mind you, as a journalist I was watching the live telecast and taking notes with every intention of maintaining my objectivity, but I couldn’t help myself. I suspect that was how many television viewers across the globe reacted as they watched the coverage.
The two leaders stood chatting on the North Korean side for a while, and then returned to the border, entering the South Korean side together in a matter-of-fact manner. Surrounded by press cameras—and a host of his bodyguards—Kim exhibited an obvious feeling of relief, at least temporarily, that he had managed to have a personal conversation with Trump. In the relief and elation he couldn’t hide, there was a childishness incongruous with the many outrages he has inflicted on the world.
Trump repeatedly told the press in Panmunjom: “Yesterday, I had the idea, maybe I’ll call Chairman Kim and see if he wants to say hello.” But in an interview Trump had granted on June 23 to The Hill, a political magazine published in Washington, he actually discussed his plans to meet up with Kim in Panmunjom after the G20 Summit. The White House put an embargo on the interview for security reasons.
While Trump toyed with the idea about his Panmunjom meeting with Kim for at least a week, the proposal hit Kim abruptly. Through an interpreter, he said he was “surprised after I saw the president express his intention (to meet me)” on Twitter. Kim made this remark after walking to the South Korean side and sitting down with Trump at “Freedom House”
Prime Minister Abe’s Crucial Role Going Forward
“I got President Trump’s message for the first time yesterday afternoon that he wanted to meet me,” Kim said. “I wanted to meet him, too.”
Apparently Kim made up his mind then and there to go to Panmunjom to meet with Trump and was in the DMZ just 24hours after he got the invitation. It was a major decision on his part, made without concerns of protocol or face. Crediting Kim with the decision-making ability he thus demonstrated, one is tempted to value what he told Trump during the meeting: “We can do better. I believe we can show the world things will be much better for our two countries, and for the world.” I wonder if Kim meant North Korea’s readiness to scrap all of his nuclear weapons and return abducted Japanese citizens.
The Trump-Kim summit lasted about 50 minutes. Flushed with excitement, Trump told American servicemen at Osan Air Base shortly before leaving for Washington: “So we’re about two and a half hours late. (But) I met with Kim Jong-un and we had a great meeting because we’re all in this together.” Trump was in high spirits, elated as if floating on air, presumably because he felt confident that his conversation with the North Korean dictator will lead to mutually beneficial results.
While one does not readily expect the negotiations with North Korea to progress smoothly, the “abrupt summit” this time may be capable of setting off certain positive reactions in both nations, propelling the denuclearization talks forward.
I recall how Mrs. Sakie Yokota, the mother of Megumi kidnapped by North Koreans in the central northern port city of Niigata at the age of 13, described Trump. Sakie has met him twice in Japan.
“President Trump is a very warm fatherly figure. I got the impression that he will protect the families of kidnap victims like the father of a good family does his wife and children.”
It goes without saying that international relations are dictated by national interests and the relative power of competing nations. But I have a feeling that somehow the Trump-Kim relationship may go rather well going forward.
That makes all the more crucial the role Abe is expected to play as leader of America’s important Pacific ally. He must emphasize to Trump a results-oriented approach that gives priority to the nuclear, missile, and abduction issues. Only if all three of these issues are resolved can the US reward the North. Abe must continue advising Trump that without honoring this principle the US will have a hard time coping with its crafty adversary.
What became very clear this time is that Trump absolutely does not require Xi or Moon Jae-in of South Korea in his efforts to tackle North Korea.
Xi Jinping has been forced into a corner domestically and internationally today. He has few friends in the international community. He went to Pyongyang June 20-21 for talks with Kim, presumably to prevail over the US by dealing with the North Korean nuclear program and the US-China trade war in a package. One day after meeting Xi, on June 23, Kim sent a personal letter to Trump, prompting him to announce with big fanfare that Kim had sent him “a very nice letter.” Trump’s immediate reply to Kim, and the Panmunjom summit that followed, smashed Xi’s plot to pieces.
Kim is not turning to Xi to mediate Pyongyang’s relations with Washington. He just wants China to back his nation economically, even violating the UN sanction resolutions if necessary.
Beijing’s Mercy A Lifeline for Pyongyang
The Xi administration has already engaged in crafty violations of the UN sanctions against North Korea. Professor Tsutomu Nishioka, an expert on the Korean Peninsula, detailed concrete examples of Chinese violations when he appeared on my regular weekly Internet television news show as a guest on June 28:
“Utilizing tourism, which is excluded from the UN blacklist, China is providing North Korea coveted foreign currency. In 2017, some 800,000 Chinese tourists visited North Korea, but last year their number increased by 50% to 1,200,000. I have reliable information that behind this significant increase is a ploy implemented by the Chinese authorities to subsidize travel agents on the sly. The Chinese government is said to cover 70% of the costs incurred by tourists, with the tour agents taking a 30% profit. The tours themselves are offered at 40% discount to begin. As a result, Chinese tourists can have fun in Pyongyang at a relatively low cost, savoring the capital’s fabled barbeque, singing at karaoke bars, and buying sex after dark. That’s how the trick works.”
Caravans of large tourist buses loaded to full capacity with these types of tourists head for North Korea daily, some of them allegedly engaging in speculative purchases of such items as iron ore and coal, which are subject to the UN sanctions. Nishioka explained that payments are effected by cash at a 50% discount on the condition that delivery will have to wait until the sanctions are lifted. Nishioka asserted:
“They cheat, not only in China but in North Korea. When I mentioned to my sources that the tourists could easily be cheated, they assured me that nothing of the sort would happen, because the Chinese authorities have pledged to protect investors. At a time when the international community is doing its utmost to drain North Korea’s foreign currency reserves in an effort to block its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programs, China is employing these dirty tricks to get around the sanctions.”
In light of the UN sanctions against Pyongyang and the US-China trade war, Beijing will not be able to go against the US policy outright and aid North Korea openly. I therefore expect China to implement even more cunning tricks in its ongoing efforts to violate the sanctions. This will lead to what overtures Kim, who regards Beijing’s mercy as a valuable lifeline for his hard-pressed nation, will make to Trump. Which in turn will overlap with the question of how much the international community will be able to check China’s attempts to aid North Korea.
The Trump-Xi talks during the G20 Summit left this point uncertain. The fourth round of tariffs Trump had intended to impose on most Chinese imports—25% on imports worth US$300 billion—was put off as the two nations called a truce. Trump also decided to allow US companies to continue selling limited quantities of their products to Huawei, China’s leading international telecom company. No matter how great Trump’s intuition and instinct may be, however, he has yet to work out medium and long-term strategies to cope effectively with China. In point of fact, the sorry lack of judicious strategies on his part is a matter of serious concern. With Trump at the helm, it is by no means a certainty that America will come out ahead. We will need to continue to monitor the situation closely, and be prepared to do what is necessary to protect our own interests.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 859 in the July 11, 2019 issue of The Weekly Shincho)