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[Robert J. Fouser] Dangers in the upcoming US-North Korea summit

The first month of the New Year has been busy in Washington, DC. A 35-day government shutdown over funding for a wall along the US-Mexico border ended with President Donald Trump caving to a united Democratic opposition. One by one, candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination have begun to enter the race. Tensions with China over trade remain high, and Venezuela emerged as a new foreign policy challenge as the US recognized Juan Guaido as the legitimate president.

Largely lost in the daily barrage of news, was the upcoming summit between Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jung-un. They are scheduled to meet sometime in February, but the place and the agenda are not yet clear. Washington continues to demand that North Korea denuclearize, but North Korea has done little to advance that cause since the June 2018 summit in Singapore. This leads to questions about the value of holding the summit at this time.

Much has changed, of course, since June 2018. The biggest change is the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Trump now has a check on his power and his recent failure to bully the Democrats into funding his will shows how powerful this check can be. Trump knows, of course, that the same power can be used to impeach him.

Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller is continuing his probe into possible collusions between the Trump campaign and Russia before the 2016 election. He has yet to produce a final report, but arrests and indictments continue. The ongoing investigation casts a shadow over Trump, which weighs on his ability to lead.

The US president is often compared to the queen in chess. The queen is most powerful when she can move quickly in different directions, but weakest when she cannot move at will. Likewise, a president is most powerful when he or she has room to maneuver to achieve his or her goals. A president without the ability to maneuver is like a caged tiger with a loud roar.

The government shutdown fiasco has turned Trump into a caged tiger on domestic policy. He can roar all he wants but the Democratic House of Representatives will not give in. The Republicans still have narrow control over the Senate, but not enough to overcome a Democratic filibuster. Trump can tweet and hold rallies all he wants, but unless he can compromise with Democrats, he will remain a caged tiger.

Foreign policy is one area that where there are few checks on a president’s power. Presidents have long turned to foreign policy as a way to overcome political difficulties at home. Early in his second term, Richard Nixon was caged by investigations into the Watergate scandal, but he continued to pursue détente with the Soviet Union.

With Trump caged at home, the summit with Kim Jung-un comes a good time. It helps him dominate the news cycle for a few days with images that make him look “presidential” on the world stage. He can also use the summit to show that he is getting results on an issue that he chose to focus on early in his term.

Kim Jong-un, by contrast, is not a caged tiger. He controls the apparatus of the state and can do what he wants. He can walk away from the meeting with nothing and face few consequences. He knows that Trump is facing a difficult re-election bid. China will not turn on him because North Korea gives it leverage over the US. All of this means that Kim is in a strong position going into the negotiations.

For South Korea, Donald Trump’s weakness has stoked fears that he may be willing to reduce the US military presence in South Korea as part of an agreement with North Korea. His recent move to withdraw US forces from Syria comes from his inherent isolationist world view. To Trump, reducing US forces is a card that can be played in making “a deal” with North Korea.

President Moon Jae-in’s government has repeatedly stated that alliance with the US is a critical component of national security. Many, however, doubt the government’s sincerity because of deep-seated anti-American sentiment around the president. To assert South Korea’s national interest amid Trump’s deal-making, Moon and others in his administration need to take a clear stand on the alliance with US and the presence of US troops in South Korea. If they support the alliance, then they should do so strongly; if not, then they should offer a persuasive vision for national security.

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.