SEOUL — Summit fever is upon us. The mere idea of two leaders sitting down and talking suggests the ultimate panacea. Surely they can come to terms once they look each other in the eye and work out all those terrible differences.
That’s the fantasy as Donald Trump wraps up his role at the G20 gathering in Osaka and takes off Saturday for Seoul and yet another meeting with President Moon Jae-in. Moon is excited. Maybe this time he can talk Trump into meeting Kim Jong-un for a third time and reach a viable agreement — even an “end-of-war” declaration!
The chances of that happening, of course, are not good. Trump would have to stop insisting that Kim agree to giving up his nuclear program, revealing the whereabouts of all his nukes and the facilities for making them. No one in his right mind thinks that Kim will go for anything like that.
That’s not to say that Trump and Kim won’t meet again and maybe do better than they did at Hanoi at the end of February. Trump’s walkout was the ultimate happy ending to such a summit. A vacuous agreement on the need for denuclearization, as they signed at Singapore a year ago, would have been more than meaningless. It would have showed the futility of the whole process.
Now Trump and Moon can try to convince each other that maybe next time Trump will move closer to reconciliation. Moon is pinning his hopes on step-by-step — that is, North Korea does something, anything, to show it’s de-nuking, and the U.S. gives up the hated sanctions.
It would be so much easier for everyone if Kim would just do the unexpected and meet Trump on the North-South line at Panmunjom on Sunday. They wouldn’t have to talk a whole lot. No need to sign another useless statement. All the world would notice was that they hugged each other befitting Trump’s claim of the depth and warmth of their special relationship.
Korean history is full of surprises, but we would be shocked, just shocked, if Kim made such a gesture. Instead, on Sunday, we may be treated to Trump going to Panmunjom and staring across the line as American presidents have been doing ever since the Korean War armistice was signed right there July 27, 1953.
Unlike some of the presidents before him, Trump should not be expected to talk tough as he peers into North Korea. It’s possible, in the Panmunjom setting, to speak of reconciliation and dialog just as Moon would love to hear — at least that’s better than threatening fire and brimstone or whatever Trump was saying at the United Nations in 2017.
This time he’s seeing Moon right after another summit that may be more meaningful — his meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping at the G20 gathering of the leaders of 20 countries. Xi no doubt is telling about his own summit with Kim in Pyongyang.
The gut reaction of a lot of commentators was that Xi wanted to build his ties with Kim by way of thumbing his nose at Trump for escalating the tariff war between the United States and China. What better than to conspire with North Korea against the United States?
Evans Revere, once a top U.S. diplomat in Seoul and Washington, takes a more nuanced view. He sees Xi wanting “to continue the effort the Chinese have been making since last year to repair ties with Pyongyang, reassert China’s role in the nuclear issue, and remind Pyongyang (and the United States) that China has interests that must be respected and a major stake in how issues are handled on the peninsula.”
It was “no accident,” Revere tells me, that “it has taken 14 years to realize a visit by a Chinese leader to Pyongyang, and even then Xi managed to spend barely 24 hours in Pyongyang.”
Xi’s visit might be seen as intended to get Kim talking again to the Americans despite Hanoi. He would definitely have applauded Kim’s stated desire to focus on the economy rather than nuclear development if he is ever to persuade the United States and United Nations to do away with the sanctions imposed after all those nuclear and missile tests.
While saying all that to Trump, he’s also asking him to go for step-by-step just as Kim and Moon both are urging. It would be ridiculous for the United States to accept such a deal, however, knowing that Kim will never reciprocate by giving up, ever so slowly, his nukes and missiles.
With no solution in sight, Kim coming down to embrace Trump at Panmunjom would still make for a great photo-op — a lot better than signing some goofy piece of paper.