Critics fear Trump’s style eclipses substance on North Korea

Threats by Pyongyang this week to scuttle a nuclear summit underscore the risks involved in Trump's approach.

President Donald Trump's strategy on North Korea has played out in full public view over 16 months with dramatic, made-for-TV moments designed to focus global attention on his risky faceoff with dictator Kim Jong Un. 

But as North Korean officials abruptly cast doubt this week on Trump's planned historic summit with Kim in Singapore next month, critics fear that a president determined to declare victory where his predecessors failed will allow his desire for a legacy-making deal to override the substance of the negotiations. 

In the social media era, Trump's public showmanship is "creating a huge buzz where everyone wants to know what's going on and what comes next," said Jung Pak, a former CIA official who is now an Asia analyst at Brookings Institution. "It's a very dramatic way of conducting foreign policy and national security. But it creates a thin veneer of understanding. It's mostly about symbolism." 

The risks involved in Trump's approach were underscored this week when a top North Korean official threatened to cancel the summit and lambasted national security adviser John Bolton over his hard-line declaration that Pyongyang must fully relinquish its nuclear weapons before the United States offers reciprocal benefits. 

Trump has invested significant political capital in the summit and a no-show by Kim would be a major embarrassment. Perhaps fearful of further alienating the North Korean leader, Trump reacted with uncharacteristic restraint Wednesday, offering a vague, "We'll see what happens." Trump responded "yes" when a reporter asked if he would still insist that the North denuclearize. 

Trump has vowed to walk away without a deal if the talks aren't fruitful. But foreign policy analysts have interpreted conflicting statements from Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as a sign that the administration might be willing to settle for a narrower agreement, such as the elimination of ballistic missiles capable of striking the United States. 

Asked about Bolton's declaration that North Korea must follow the "Libya model" from 2004 and quickly abandon its nuclear program, which Pyongyang blames for the overthrow of leader Muammar Gaddafi, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested he was freelancing. 

"I haven't seen that as part of any discussions," she told reporters, "so I'm not aware that that's a model that we're using." 

Democrats and foreign policy analysts also have expressed alarmed over Trump's sharp rhetorical shift toward Kim. Having mocked him last year as a "madman," Trump has softened his tone and cast the authoritarian leader as an honest broker. 

After Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the demilitarized zone in April, Trump said the Kim had been "very open and I think very honorable based on what we're seeing." Last week, standing on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews with three Americans who had been imprisoned in North Korea for more than a year, Trump told reporters that Kim "really was excellent" to the three men in allowing them to leave. 

"The president's rhetoric has reflected Kim Jong Un's actions," deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah said. "Kim Jong Un has stepped forward and made pledges to halt nuclear tests, halt ICBM tests, and now has released these three prisoners. And those are signs of good faith, and we hope to build on that." 

Critics said Trump, enamored with his own handiwork, has focused too heavily on shaping the public narrative ahead of the summit and trying to set the stage for a political victory. Always mindful of how his actions are playing on television, the president boasted on the tarmac at Andrews last week that the cable networks live-broadcasting the return of the American prisoners would set all-time viewership records. 

"President Trump has forged a new category of international relations that I would call 'diplotainment,' and the Singapore meeting is going to demonstrate diplotainment at its pinnacle," said Daniel Russel, who served as senior Asia director at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. "Imagine the size the crowd is going to be in Singapore - it's going to be 'huge.' But those are very different deliverables than, say, the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." 

All administrations have employed elements of stagecraft to advance a president's foreign policy agenda. But few have embraced the role with as much gusto as Trump. 

In November, after a surprise visit to the demilitarized zone aboard Marine One was foiled by bad weather, Trump delivered a searing speech at South Korean's National Assembly in Seoul, lambasting North Korea as "a country ruled as a cult." 

In January, Trump used the denouement of his State of the Union address to introduce a surprise guest in the first lady's box: Ji Seong-ho, a North Korea defector, raised his crutches to a standing ovation in the House chambers as Trump said he represented what the Kim regime feared most —"the truth." 

And in February, Vice President Mike Pence brought Fred Warmbier — the father of Otto Warmbier, a college student who died after 17 months in captivity in North Korea — with him as part of the U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in a bid to upstage the North's own delegation. 

Yet as Trump has shifted into summit mode, he has appeared infatuated by the prospects of a historic deal, with supporters already talking about a potential Nobel Peace Prize. 

After seeing images of Kim and Moon, during their summit, taking turns stepping across the border at the 38th parallel, Trump ruminated that the demilitarized zone might be a good site for his own meeting with Kim. 

"If things work out, there's a great celebration to be had, on the site," he said. 

But experts noted that the Panmunjon Declaration signed by the two Korean leaders did not contain significant new breakthroughs and appeared to be a more symbolic bid by Moon to improve relations and create the optics of success for Trump. 

Trump's focus is "very much getting the public involved and invested in what's going on. That's the way you shape the narrative," said Pak, the Brookings analyst. "Moon is doing something similar. By televising the summit, televising the meetings, he's creating an intimacy between the viewer and the object." 

The upshot, she said, is a win for Kim — humanizing him and helping him shed a label as "the creature from Pyongyang." 

Some analysts said Trump deserves credit for elevating the North Korean threat and consolidating international support for his "maximum pressure" strategy, including from China. Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a global risk analysis firm, said Trump's relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping helped tighten economic sanctions on Pyongyang. Though it is highly unlikely the North will denuclearize, a smaller deal aimed at dismantling the North's ballistic missiles is worth pursuing, he said. 

The president's willingness to be bold and stake his reputation on the summit "helps avoid disaster because it is so historic," Bremmer said. "Even if not much comes out of the meeting aside from theatrics, given everything that has transpired if the theatrics are good, and Trump knows how to put on a show, those that support Trump will think this is tremendous." 

Yet Pyongyang's threat to cancel the summit was a reminder that Trump is facing an unpredictable and wily negotiating partner, one prone to similar public outbursts and bouts of showmanship. 

More recently, Trump reportedly asked the Pentagon to draw up plans to reduce or eliminate the more than 30,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, a long-held goal of both Pyongyang and Beijing. The president told reporters that such a deal was not on the table for Kim, but he reiterated that he might entertain the idea in the future to save U.S. tax dollars. 

Bruce Klingner, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who now works at the Heritage Foundation, said that in envisioning potential outcomes for the summit, he believes it is likely that Trump will take a page from his book, "The Art of the Deal," in which the real estate developer touted the virtues of "truthful hyperbole." 

No matter what Trump agrees to with Kim, regardless of the details, Klingner said, the president will declare it "the best deal in the world."

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