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Summit of egos

Apr 19,2018
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John Bolton, the newly appointed national security adviser at the White House, waves his hand at a roundtable discussion on tax cuts for small businesses in Florida on Monday. Bolton made the gesture after Trump praised him for “a big successful hit,” referring to targeted strikes against Syria over the weekend. [AP/YONHAP]
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Kim Hyun-ki

*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

At an event in Florida on Monday to promote Trump’s tax policies, there was a sudden standing ovation, but it was not for the president’s financial policy advisers. It was for John Bolton, the White House’s new national security adviser.

Before the speech, President Trump pointed at Bolton and said, “By the way, John Bolton is here. We just had a big successful hit.” The attendees then stood and applauded. Trump was referring to the recent targeted air strike on Syria. What garnered more attention was the remarks that followed.

“John, that’s pretty good. I didn’t expect that,” Trump said. “I’m a little jealous. Are you giving him all the credit? You know, that means the end of his job.” He was joking that Bolton wouldn’t last long as national security adviser if he gets more attention than the president himself.

But everyone in Washington knows that he is not 100 percent joking. The Hill, which covers DC affairs, wrote that Trump gets frustrated when others get more attention. Trump wants to be the center of attention all the time.

His instinct will be evident at the upcoming U.S.-North summit. He will not accept any result other than one in which he is highlighted as a hero. The strike on Syria may have been a message to North Korea to play the right card.

Trump showcased his “bloody nose” strategy on Syria. He showed Kim Jong-un that Syria, which reportedly has better air defense capabilities than North Korea, could not shoot down a single one of the more than 100 missiles fired on them.

It is a different matter how Kim will respond to Trump’s threat of strikes if he does not give up his nuclear weapons. He might believe he has to make a deal with the United States no matter what.

But he might also conclude that the situation in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad finds himself is exactly where he’ll be if he gives up his nuclear arsenal. Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said Kim must have thought the United States wouldn’t strike if Assad had nuclear weapons.

The strike on Syria gave Kim a reason to hold onto his nukes. He must have been reminded of the tragic fates of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as he watched more than 100 missiles bombard Syria. Nothing is predictable in thin air.

The intense drama that is the U.S.-North summit has already begun. A source familiar with Pyongyang’s inner workings said Kim has been working on a road map toward appeasement since November 2011. The scenario included participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics held in South Korea, reconciliatory moves toward Seoul, an inter-Korean summit and a U.S.-North summit.

One unexpected factor was Trump’s sudden acceptance of a summit meeting with Kim. The North Korean leader thought that the decision would take months and never imagined it would be announced on the spot, which is why he made that surprise visit to China. Now, Trump and Kim are afraid of each other’s unpredictable nature.

The upcoming inter-Korean summit is more important than ever. The South should present cards that allow both Trump and Kim to show they are the main characters in this play. One unexpected breakthrough may be the economic development of North Korea, which Trump is most interested in and Kim most desperately needs.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 18, Page 30