After he co-signed that vague little paper-for-show with President Trump, Kim Jong Un had his North Korean government tell the people back home that their leader had enjoyed a most successful meeting with the American president.
Kim did not stress that he had committed to working toward disarming the country's nuclear arsenal--"completely," as the statement said. Instead he heralded a development not in the statement, but that the American president had given him separately, individually and unilaterally.
It was that he had extracted a concession from the American president that the annual United States-South Korean military drills in South Korea--war games--would be discontinued because North Korea saw them as provocative and insisted on their cessation.
South Korea didn't know that was in the offing. The Pentagon may not have, either. But that's the point with Trump. He prefers to act in a kind of authoritarian way to get deals done in his own artful image.
He could do that on this occasion in a private tête-à-tête with Kim. He can't do that in Washington with all that government openness and representative democracy getting in the way.
So Kim essentially committed the same transgression as that of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau days before. After his summit, he described events for his domestic audience in terms spun advantageously to his domestic interest.
Trudeau had said Canadians would not accept punitive tariffs without retaliating. Trump had blown up over that and called Trudeau highly insulting names.
Kim said his summit's big development was that the Americans conceded on that war-games point. Trump, otherwise telling people that Kim's nuclear disarmament could well take place any minute now, said nothing in response to that.
Trump merely kept extolling the talented man that he found Kim to be and remarking on how good his "chemistry" with him had been.
One difference was that the North Koreans praised Trump in their statement. If Trudeau had amended his remarks to take note that the American president had large hands, he'd probably have been all right.
The greater difference is that, with Trump, the deal comes down less to what the deal is than to how the attempts at deal-making appear on television.
More to the point, it comes down to how his ego feels about his portrayal in that prevailing public view.
Trump thought Trudeau might come away looking tougher than he unless he took to Twitter to call the Canadian highly insulting names and thoroughly blow up a G-7 summit that he'd made a bust anyway.
Trump believes he is seen more favorably by his vital base back home if he engages in combat rather than cooperation with Trudeau and other traditional European allies, almost all more liberal than he, and most wishing they had Barack Obama to work with. So, there's a bit of a chip on the Trumpian shoulder as well in the matter of European relations.
With Kim, Trump looks good if he appears to have made unprecedented personal presidential progress with a North Korean leader on nuclear disarmament. Thus, he dares not object when Kim drops the impression back home that he out-negotiated the big American. That would destroy ... not the deal, because there isn't one to destroy, but the appearance of the deal, sufficiently favorable to Trump at this early juncture that the ravenous ego stands adequately nourished.
Trudeau and Kim were doing what domestic political leaders do. They were tending to their domestic knitting. Neither statement was detrimental to a decent eventual outcome of negotiations. In fact, the statements were obligatory steps toward a possibly decent outcome.
Canadians needed to be placated for Trudeau to negotiate on trade. And North Koreans needed to be told that the war games next door would end well before anyone tried to tell them they might be giving up the nuclear weapons they've been told for decades provided their only lifeblood.
Trump has his own domestic political considerations that compel him to challenge Trudeau and charm Kim. But it's his personal ego consideration that directs him to go further--to belittle a democratic neighbor and flatter a remote strongman.
Trump seems to respect strongmen more than democratic leaders. He seems to care more about winning over an enemy or rival than being true to a friendship or alliance.
No one can say what will possibly come of our trade policies with our traditional allies and with the world regarding North Korea's nuclear threat. There are troubling signs on trade and encouraging ones on North Korea, by Trump's fault on trade and to his credit on North Korea. But these are signs only.
Trump said Tuesday he'd find a way to make excuses if he turns out to be wrong in placing confidence in Kim.
That's because, whatever else happens, what matters first to Trump will always be Trump.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at email@example.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
Editorial on 06/14/2018
Print Headline: It's all about the ego