Reactions to the June 12 summit in Singapore between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reminded me of a popular TV public service announcement in the US in the 1980s. The 15-second video showed a raw egg being dropped onto a sizzling fry pan. The egg began to sizzle as it hit the pan and the narrator said, “This is your brain on drugs.”
Trump is the sizzling fry pan that causes politicians and mainstream media to sizzle and crackle. The process jumbles conventional wisdom and creates strange new bedfellows.
Many mainstream media outlets in the US declared the summit a failure because the joint statement issued at the end did not include reference to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.
Trump’s offer to suspend joint military exercises, or “war games” as he called them, scheduled for August created the impression that he was giving away too much in exchange for too little. His comment at a press conference on the possibility of withdrawing US troops from the Korean Peninsula in the future created anxiety among staunch conservatives in South Korea.
In contrast, the summit was heralded as a historic breakthrough by the left in both the US and South Korea. The left in both countries has long questioned the legitimacy of US involvement in Korean affairs and was pleased to see the suspension of joint military exercises. That Trump is open to a possible withdrawal of US forces from South Korea pleased them even more.
Sitting between supporters and critics of the summit is the most important group: the “silent majority.” Polls in both countries show that the majority of voters support engagement. They view the Trump-Kim summit, coming after two summits between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim, as another step forward in reducing tensions and creating conditions for denuclearization. They know instinctively that overcoming 70 years of hate and mistrust is not easy.
This explains why the silent majority in South Korea voted overwhelmingly for candidates in President Moon’s Democratic Party in local elections held on June 13. The dominant trend since democratization in 1987 has been for the public to check the president’s power by voting for opposition parties in elections during his or her term. The results of the June 13 election defied this trend and showed that Moon’s engagement with North Korea is widely popular.
The silent majority in the US knows little about Korea but is tired of war after the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are willing to give engagement a chance and, like their South Korean counterparts, know that the process takes time. Many of Trump’s core supporters also have isolationist views and would prefer that the US focus on its problems rather than get involved in conflicts overseas. Trump’s comment about the withdrawal of US forces from South Korea no doubt pleased many of his core supporters.
Evaluating public opinion in North Korea is almost impossible, but its state-controlled media reported on the summit in detail, which suggests that the government is confident that it would be received well. The pageantry of the two leaders shaking hands in front of a row of US and North Korean flags no doubt went down well in a country that has longed for recognition from the outside world.
Critics of the inter-Korean summits and the US-North Korean summit may be loud, but their voices are larger than their numbers. The reality is that the leaders of the three countries view the summit as a success and plan to go forward with future summits. The leaders have the support of the majority of a cautiously optimistic public. Politically, the summits have been good for the leaders. Moon remains widely popular, Kim has done what his father and grandfather could not do, and Trump is creating a good-news narrative ahead of the midterm elections in November.
If history is any guide, the road ahead is paved with dangers. To continue the process leading toward, to quote the Trump-Kim joint statement, a “lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” leaders of the three countries need to listen to the silent majority that instinctively supports diplomacy. They also need to address their critics by focusing on actions that build trust and that lead to further progress. Above all, they need to remain focused on the long term and resist the temptation to be swayed by loud, sizzling voices that are more interested in political advantage than peace on the Korean Peninsula.
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 email@example.com. -- Ed.