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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
The recent soirée of the Supreme Leader and the U.S. President at the DMZ cemented the image that current unconventional diplomacy with North Korea is based almost entirely on the pair’s personal chemistry. “I love the guy,” President Trump publicly noted.
If there was any question of this, the fact that the national security team of North Korea skeptics was sidelined during the DMZ event leaves little doubt — North Korea hawk John Bolton was even dispatched out of the way to Mongolia.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was humbled when he and First Daughter Ivanka were introduced to U.S. troops as “Beauty and the Beast” by an often sarcastic President. Ivanka stole the show from these more seasoned national security advisers at both the G-20 in Osaka and then during the DMZ visit.
She paid a price, however, with a heated millennial hashtag attack titled “Unwanted Ivanka,” which photoshopped the First Daughter at such historic events as the FDR-Churchill-Stalin Yalta Conference and the D-Day landings.
The Supreme Commander may just have to sit and wait while the 2020 electoral chips fall where they may
Authoritarian rulers – and monarchists – naturally prefer the personal touch in diplomacy, over which they exercise total control, to the more standard method of using striped-pants diplomats.
However Kim Jong Un, used to getting his own way, may not entirely appreciate the potential risk being taken. By so overtly placing all of his diplomatic eggs in Trump’s personal basket, he is gambling that there will be a second Trump administration.
There is no steadfast guarantee of this in next year’s U.S. presidential election. No one can predict who will emerge as the victor, in contrast to elections in North Korea.
A new Democratic president in the White House would likely view any “deal” cooked up between Trump and Kim with extreme skepticism. And there is no possibility of giving an order to eliminate a pesky rival beforehand, such as Kim Jong Un did with his half-brother, in the American democratic system.
Given the current level of bipartisan animosity, there would be a strong tendency to undo any North Korea nuclear deal in the works with Trump – just as Trump has trashed the Iranian nuclear deal in large part because it was the diplomatic product of his maligned predecessor, President Obama.
So in just sixteen months, Kim Jong Un could find himself back out in the cold, with sanctions still in place and the annual joint U.S.-ROK military exercises reinstated for good measure.
The DMZ meeting itself was the subject of a June 30 headline in the conservative Cincinnati newspaper The Enquirer. It read: “Otto Warmbier trends on Twitter as users aghast at Trump photo-op in North Korea.” (Otto’s hometown of Wyoming is a Cincinnati suburb.)
Southern Ohio expectations that President Trump would seek to do the right thing by Otto Warmbier and his family were reportedly high, especially after the President invited Otto’s parents to the State of the Union address last year and referenced their horrible ordeal with North Korea directly in his remarks.
The Enquirer reported that now: “President Donald Trump’s visit to North Korea has started more calls of outrage against the president, who some feel has forgotten about Otto Warmbier.”
Ohio is a key swing state and southern Ohio, the ancestral home of the politically influential Taft family, is one of the key Republican strongholds in the state. No Republican presidential candidate, since the foundation of the party before the Civil War, has been elected to the White House without carrying Ohio.
If enough of the residents of Wyoming, Ohio, and its surrounding area remain “outraged” over President Trump’s acceptance of Kim Jong Un’s absurd denial of knowledge about Otto Warmbier’s fate in Hanoi, then the President could lose Ohio in a close election, and with it the White House.
In any event, the overall chances of a final Trump-Kim deal remain increasingly iffy as the electoral clock ticks. The latest brouhaha over the Trump tweet suggesting that four U.S. representatives, who are women of color, should “go back” to where they came from (three of the four were born in the United States) has further muddied the waters.
The latest polls indicate that, while his nativist base is sticking with him, support for President Trump among such key groups as women, minorities, and millennials has further eroded, potentially putting certain key swing states in the Electoral College beyond his grasp.
The effect on newly naturalized immigrant voters, including Korean-Americans, could be even greater. The Asian-American voting block is reportedly the fastest expanding voter demographic in the entire United States.
Older Asian-American small business owners have supported Republican candidates in the past, seeking tax relief and business deregulation. But hearing the words “go back where you came from” (buzz language for “you don’t belong here”) from one of next year’s presidential candidates is disturbing.
One Korean-American small business owner in northern Virginia (home of an 80,000-strong Korean-American community) stated recently that the “only people who can tell us to leave are Native Americans. Why doesn’t Melania leave? Her parents? What about Trump’s own mother? (All were born in Europe.)”
No less a person than George Conway, spouse of White House official Kellyanne Conway, wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed of the sting he remembered from his childhood in the 1970s, when his Filipina-American mother was accosted in a parking lot by an aggrieved elderly white woman and told “go back where you came from.”
Authoritarian rulers… naturally prefer the personal touch in diplomacy, over which they exercise total control
As one recently sworn-in immigrant voter was quoted as saying to the press; “why would I vote for someone who doesn’t want me here?”
This then presents Kim Jong Un with a potentially problematic situation in which, uncharacteristically, he has almost no control. He cannot just order his Pyongyang spin doctors to issue propaganda blasts to try to assist his newest friend’s re-election prospects.
One would presume that even pro-Trump Republican voters would find praise coming from sinister Pyongyang to be a turn-off – although as President Trump himself once observed, he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and these followers would not desert him.
Kim Jong Un could then, in desperation, even try to take a page out of Putin’s 2016 playbook and attempt to remotely influence the American election in key states through social media and his famous North Korean hackers.
But that would be a very risky proposition with dire consequences for U.S.-NK future relations if Pyongyang got caught with its hand in the American electoral cookie jar.
So, for once in his life, the Supreme Commander may just have to sit and wait while the 2020 electoral chips fall where they may.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES