The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s reality show takes over U.S. foreign policy

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President Trump did something historic on Sunday. Before onlooking cameras and a grinning despot, he became the first U.S. president to cross the line of demarcation that separates the two Koreas.

For the former reality television host, the scene was vintage Trump. Over the past few weeks, Trump’s team teased the prospect of a third meeting since 2018 with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, possibly after the president wrapped up his visit to Japan and the Group of 20 summit. Rumors and speculation gripped the White House press corps. Then came a presidential tweet from Osaka on Saturday, where Trump indicated he would travel to the DMZ, the last frozen frontier of the Cold War, and coyly asked the despot in Pyongyang to meet him there for a handshake.

Kim happily obliged, achieving a feat unmatched by his father or grandfather. And so, before a bruising scrum of bodyguards and journalists, Trump strode past Panmunjom’s blue-painted compounds and got a photo op for the ages.

The theatrics and uncertainty of the moment cannot conceal the Trumpian pattern already at play. As my colleague David Nakamura noted, the handshake over the 38th parallel was only the latest episode of a series of “carefully cultivated elaborately staged moments” over the past two years that “reveal a president eager to play the roles of producer and director, calling the camera shots, hyping the drama, and building public expectations for a big reveal.”

Critics, including leading 2020 Democratic candidates, decried the handshake as another instance of Trump coddling a dictator for no clear strategic benefit. After Trump made his historic step, the two leaders sat down for a hastily organized bilateral meeting on the South Korean side of the border. It emerged that stalled talks on North Korea’s denuclearization would resume and that Kim was likely invited for an unprecedented White House visit.

President Trump on June 30 thanked North Korea leader Kim Jong Un for meeting with him in the DMZ, which Trump said preempted the media from “hitting" him. (Video: The Washington Post)

But experts pointed out that there had yet to be any meaningful progress between both sides before Trump’s appearance at the border — which was a monumental concession to a long-isolated totalitarian state. Kim wants relief from international sanctions; the White House wants to defang North Korea’s nuclear program. Neither outcome is in the cards, at least in the near term.

Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, argued that the road ahead would be “tough,” contingent on a series of “piecemeal deals” and a long, arduous diplomatic process. So far, though, Trump has shown little patience and stamina for this sort of high-wire track. Instead, he prioritizes spectacle and pageantry.

“They needed something that is strong on optics but weak on substance,” Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, told my colleagues. “Substance is difficult or impossible to achieve in the available time frame, and involves such painful issues that they would like to keep pushing the can down the road.”

An encouraging sign for those of the dovish persuasion would have been the absence of Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, a hawk who decades prior worked to sabotage earlier diplomatic rounds with Pyongyang. Bolton was conspicuously in the Mongolian capital for separate meetings, while Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative to North Korea who has clashed with Bolton, was at Trump’s side.

But few analysts expect any real breakthroughs soon. “If this were part of a broader detente, if it followed a major agreement to limit the threat, it would be a powerful, even exhilarating moment,” observed Adam Mount of the Federation of American Scientists. “Unfortunately, this is empty pageantry for its own sake.”

Nevertheless, the pageantry tells its own story. “All the buildup and made-for-TV drama, however, has distracted from one salient fact: North Korea has not given up its nuclear weapons. In fact, it likely has more nuclear-weapons material now than it did a year ago, when Trump became the first American leader to meet with his North Korean counterpart,” wrote the Atlantic’s Uri Friedman. “What the fevered anticipation does underscore is that progress on North Korean denuclearization rests largely on Trump and Kim’s personal relationship—even though this dependence contributed to the collapse of their second summit, in Vietnam last February.”

This is now par for the course for Trump. The president’s agenda hinges profoundly around his own personality, celebrity and will to power; moral imperatives, political values and conventional diplomatic processes all take a back seat.

Sitting next to Kim, one of the world’s foremost human rights abusers, Trump took the time to spread falsehoods about his predecessor, former president Barack Obama. Earlier on his trip at the G-20, he joked with Russian President Vladimir Putin about election interference, no matter the assessments of his own intelligence agencies. When asked about separate remarks Putin had made attacking Western liberal values, Trump appeared to misinterpret the question, launching into a diatribe against California Democrats — the only Western liberalism that matters to a president in constant campaign mode.

And in Trump’s theater, a familiar cast of characters always has a role to play, regardless of their qualifications. His daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, attended the session with Kim. On the sidelines of the G-20 in Japan, Ivanka issued the White House’s formal “readout” of talks with Japanese and Indian counterparts — an anodyne, platitudinous statement made only interesting by the identity of the messenger.

A video released by the French government captured the awkwardness of an interaction between the president’s daughter and a number of other Western leaders possibly perplexed by her role at the major international summit.

“The video,” wrote Ed Luce of the Financial Times, “shows varying expressions of tortured politeness as Ms Trump intrudes on a discussion between France’s Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Theresa May, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF. Ms Lagarde, in particular, was unable to conceal her irritation.”

In another era, the scene would be itself a cause for genuine consternation. Now, it’s just another episode of Trump’s never-ending reality show — and the rest of the world is getting with the program.

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