On the eve of his impeachment acquittal, President Donald Trump gave his annual State of the Union address. Instead of outlining proposals for the coming year, Trump turned the address into a rally for his reelection campaign. He stoked his base while pivoting to groups that he wants to reach to bolster his chances of reelection.
Absent from the speech was any reference to North Korea. In his 2019 State of the Union address, shortly before the summit with Kim Jong-un in Vietnam, President Trump boldly asserted that his opening to North Korea avoided war. In the 2018 address, he took a hard line against North Korea and introduced defector Ji Seong-ho, who stood and shook his crutches as the entire US government applauded.
Since the march to impeachment began in late September 2019, Trump has been largely silent about North Korea. Toward the end of 2019, he briefly mentioned that he hoped Kim would not follow through on his promised “Christmas present” and that their good relationship would continue.
In recent months, Trump’s attention has turned to the Middle East, as tensions with Iran have risen and domestic pressure grows for a withdrawal from Afghanistan. Both issues were mentioned in the State of the Union address. However, the omission of North Korea from the address came as a surprise because he had given his overture to North Korea such a high profile.
Reading Trump’s mind is never easy, but three years into his presidency, there are outlines of a pattern. The keyword is “show.” Everything about Trump is a show. His boisterous rallies and vulgar Twitter feed are frequent shows, but more serious events like the State of the Union address are opportunities for a show. Before entering politics, his buildings, his divorces and his TV show “The Apprentice” were all shows. They kept him in the news and made him feel important.
During the long 2016 campaign, Trump did not say much about North Korea, but he latched onto it soon after winning the election. He spent the first full year in office responding to North Korea’s missile tests by imposing harsher sanctions and calling Kim “rocket man.” This situation allowed Trump to show strength and project himself as powerful leader.
The PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018 gave North Korea an excuse to reach out to South Korea and eventually the US. The warming of relations between the two Koreas gave Trump a chance for another show and he took it. He agreed to meet Kim in the historic Singapore summit in June 2018. It was the first time a US president and a North Korean leader had met, and it was a perfect photo op.
The show continued with a second summit in Vietnam in February 2019 but Trump changed the script by ending the talks early and going home. In June 2019, Trump and Kim met again, this time in the DMZ for informal talks. Trump took the chance to symbolically walk across the border with Kim into North Korea.
Since the DMZ meeting, impeachment and the Middle East have provided opportunities for other shows. The race for the Democratic nomination is now in full swing and will give Trump much show material. The State of Union address shows that Trump is basing his reelection campaign mainly on the strong US economy. Withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan would end “America’s longest war,” which would make for a good election-year show.
Trump likes shows, but he also likes reduced risk. His crude style and bombastic tweets suggest impulsiveness and risk taking, but that is part of the show. His behavior has not damaged his poll numbers or his chances for reelection, so there is little risk in continuing the behavior. Adopting more stable, “presidential” behavior would kill the show, which in Trump’s mind carries the risk of weakening his brand.
For Trump to take interest in North Korea again, an opportunity for a low-risk show will have to present itself. Summits can always be turned into shows, but there have been two summits already. Trump has visited the DMZ, so that is not new either. A visit to Pyongyang or a visit by Kim to Washington could be the flashy new show that Trump craves. Another showy opportunity could pop up. But whatever happens, Trump will make sure that the risk is low and the reward is potentially high -- for him.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.