[Correspondent’s column] There’s no point in ruminating over Trump’s every remark

Posted on : 2019-12-13 17:35 KST Modified on : 2019-12-13 17:40 KST
The US president doesn’t consider how his offhand comments will be interpreted
US President Donald Trump during a NATO summit in London on Dec. 4.
US President Donald Trump during a NATO summit in London on Dec. 4.

While writing articles about remarks by US President Donald Trump, I frequently feel a sense of dismay, and even frustration. That’s not only because of his crude language, which dispenses with any pretense of the dignity of his office as president, or because of his unpredictability, swinging from one position to its exact opposite. What’s most frustrating is that, after reporting on Trump’s remarks as if they had the kind of grave significance that reporters tend to attribute to ordinary heads of state, I often end up wondering why I even bothered. Such feelings are especially frequent when it comes to North Korea-US relations. I’m going to take a look at my reports over the past three months, fully aware that I won’t be doing myself any favors.

On Sept. 18, Trump floated the idea of a “new method,” while mentioning that former National Security Advisor John Bolton had complicated North Korea-US relations with his remarks about the “Libya model.” Trump’s remarks prompted media speculations that Trump was acquiescing to North Korea’s demand for a “new calculation,” and Kim Myong-gil, North Korea’s roving ambassador and envoy to its negotiations with the US, even said he’d been interested to read reports that Trump had called for a new method. But there was no mention of any new method during the South Korea-US summit or in Trump’s keynote address to the UN a few days later, and the North Korea-US working-level talks in Stockholm in early October ended without an agreement. Looking back, the source who laconically suggested that Trump was referring to himself when he spoke of a “new method” was essentially correct.

On Oct. 21, Trump said, “There’s some very interesting information on North Korea. [. . .] And that’s going to be a major rebuild at a certain point.” Ten days later, North Korea test launched a super-large multiple rocket launcher. On Nov. 17, Trump tweeted to Kim Jong-un that “You should act quickly, get the deal done. See you soon!” The tweet gave the impression that the mood was shifting toward dialogue. Trump’s remarks often highlight his own achievements at the expense of Obama and tout his unique skills as a problem solver; references to North Korea often fall within this category.

Since December, which North Korea has declared to be the deadline for its denuclearization talks with the US, Trump’s remarks, at least superficially, have become more pugnacious. He employed the epithet “Rocket Man” for the first time in two years, said the US would use military force if necessary, and warned that Kim Jong-un would “lose everything” if he engaged in hostile activity. The North Koreans shot back that they have “nothing to lose,” while conveying the annoyance of their supreme leader. But Trump made his remark about “Rocket Man” to fend off a report who asked why North Korea’s nuclear program was still in operation despite Trump’s multiple meetings with Kim. “He definitely likes sending rockets up, doesn’t he?” Trump also said.

Trump’s syllogism that the US military was weak under Obama, that it’s now the strongest in the world, and that he doesn’t want to use the military but will if he has to is a rhetorical device he often turns to, regardless of the country he’s discussing. While it’s true that Trump is more fretful than he used to be, the overall tenor of his remarks leans toward dialogue, based on the assumption that Kim isn’t the type of person to jeopardize his relationship with Trump and lose everything in the process.

Trump, in fact, isn’t the type of person who gives careful thought to how each of his remarks will come across in the press, how they’ll be interpreted by other parties, or what their ramifications might be. There’s no need to search for some profound meaning or intent in each and every offhand remark. If both sides take sanctimonious offense at each other’s remarks about the negotiations, they’ll only waste time and fuel distrust. Since both Trump and Kim are still refraining from lobbing rhetorical bombs at each other, as they did in 2017, there’s still a chance for a solution. The two of them ought to communicate directly, whether that means exchanging letters, dispatching special envoys, or talking on the phone. There’s still a chance to make North Korea’s “Christmas present” the resumption of dialogue, rather than a long-range projectile.

By Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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