The Road to Singapore: Trump, the Two Koreas and the Quality of Mercy

    Dennis P. Halpin

    Security, Asia

    Why is North Korea earning plaudits for freeing three political prisoners while South Korea’s own former president is behind bars?

    The latest twists and turns in the proposed upcoming Singapore Summit have all the makings of the classic 1940 B-grade comedy “Road to Singapore,” with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. The newly hesitant Kim Jong-un—like Hope and Crosby, reluctant sailors being pushed toward undesirable marriages in the film—is expressing sudden misgivings about ‘the Libya model” and “CVID” (complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons) before showing up at the altar in Singapore. The official voice of North Korea, KCNA, has even threatened to leave President Donald Trump jilted unless certain concessions regarding U.S.-ROK military exercises are made.

    The shrewd Kim appears to have calculated that President Trump, with a series of challenging political situations at home and abroad, needs his “Nixon goes to China” moment more than Kim does—who, after all, has complete control over his domestic messaging. The avid chants of “Nobel, Nobel” by Trump supporters at a recent rally—blissfully ignoring the “pay to play” scandal that followed in the wake of the last Nobel Peace Prize granted for a Korean Summit—only add to an image of how desperately the White House wants this summit to happen.

    Nor, given past North Korean behavior, is it particularly surprising that Kim apparently decided to throw the overly eager South Korean President Moon Jae-in at least temporarily under the bus by abruptly cancelling a follow-up meeting with Seoul with less than twenty-four hours’ notice. North Korea’s priority has always been to have direct talks with the Americans—with the American President serving as the Holy Grail. Pyongyang almost got there with the preliminary visit of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in October 2000, but the Clinton Administration ran out of time. Kim’s grandfather and father were able to receive former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, respectively, but that was not quite the same. Seoul, however, having now delivered President Trump on a silver platter via South Korean President Moon’s courting of First Daughter Ivanka Trump at the closing ceremonies of February’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, is no longer the priority.

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