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Understanding the Trumpian slip

June 07,2018
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Kim Hyun-ki
*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Freudian slips can sometimes expose truths that were meant to stay hidden. Several years ago, the usually unflappable Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser under U.S. President George W. Bush, allegedly had a Freudian slip of her own at a dinner party in Washington. She began to say, “As I was telling my husb—,” before stopping herself and saying instead, “As I was telling President Bush.” Some in the media claimed the slip revealed that Rice, who was unmarried, had feelings for her boss.

Bush himself was also famous for his Freudian slips. In his address to teachers nationwide, televised on NBC, he said, “First I’d like to spank all the teachers,” instead of “thank.” Some psychologists theorized that the slip showed Bush’s self-consciousness around teachers, originating from his poor performance in school. Few know whether the slips have any truth in them, but this is why reporters love to dissect every sentence to find the meaning in political ambiguities and unintentional slips.

President Donald Trump is a rare case in the conventional context of political language. Instead of trying to decipher the ambiguities of what he says, reporters need to discover the truth in his random outbursts.

After a White House meeting with the North Korean envoy Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of North Korea, Trump confirmed that a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will take place as originally scheduled on June 12 in Singapore after he had abruptly called off the meeting. Instead of boasting of “a great celebration” through a landmark deal in Singapore as he previously said, Trump said the upcoming meeting will be “a process” that could lead to more meetings. He claimed the U.S. and North Korea are “getting along” and that he no longer wished to use the term “maximum pressure.” Some think the wording is a calculated negotiation strategy, while others sense flexibility in Trump ahead of a historic deal.

If you ask me, I think Trump’s approach on North Korea is extemporaneous. He says things according to political conditions and his whims. It is why the traditional U.S. approach and Trump’s personal one often clashes. But as long as he is the leader, what happens in Singapore will be decided by Trump rather than by American principles.

The trouble is that if he presses North Korea too much, the highly publicized event could go to waste. At the same time, given all the attention and energy spent on the summit, it could be very risky for Trump to return home without tangible progress in denuclearization. That’s his dilemma.

Earlier this week Trump tweeted that he has the “absolute right to pardon myself.” He argued that the special counsel is being unconstitutional in its investigation into Russia’s election-meddling and potential ties between Trump’s campaign staff and the Kremlin. Meaningless or not, he must proceed with denuclearization talks with North Korea at least until the midterm elections and get his name on the list of Nobel Peace Prize candidates to draw attention away from the special counsel and impeachment question.

When asked by reporters about what financial rewards Washington had in mind after Trump’s meeting with the North Korean envoy, he said, “We’re 6,000 miles away.” Trump likes to quote numbers to make a point that can stick to voters’ ears. The distance also refers to the necessary flight range of a missile fired from North Korea to arrive at the West Coast of the U.S.

The number may have exposed Trump’s intention of drawing a North Korean pledge to dismantle intercontinental missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads to the United States while pushing back the more complicated process of denuclearization in the Singapore meeting. Trump also went ahead with his pledge to renegotiate a free trade pact with South Korea on the rationale that the deal had killed “100,000 American jobs.”

The South Korean government, meanwhile, is already euphoric about the possibility of a peace treaty and renewed inter-Korean projects and relations. But the result can be fatally flawed if Trump walks away with a Nobel Peace prize and Kim Jong-un is left with eased sanctions, while the bill lands on South Korea.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 6, Page 26