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Script or no script?

June 28,2018
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Top: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a press conference after his June 12 meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore. Bottom: President Moon Jae-in, holding a script in his hands, speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin during his state visit to Russia last week. [YONHAP]
Kim Hyun-ki
*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

These days, the life of a Washington correspondent is exhausting. As tiring as it is to keep up with the torrent of North Korean news, the harder task is fighting against Trump’s lies.

At a rally in Duluth, Minnesota, last week, U.S. President Donald Trump casually dropped the bombshell news: “We got back our great fallen heroes, the remains sent back today, already 200 got sent back.” After his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore in June 12, Trump had said at a press conference that Kim had agreed to “quickly” return the remains of U.S. soldiers from the 1950-53 Korean War, in compliance with their joint agreement.

After the Duluth comment, news desks got busy trying to verify it, with difficulty. The next day, Trump corrected himself and said the remains were “in the process of being returned.”

The flip-flop was mediocre compared to other bluffs in Trump’s crying-wolf repertoire. Upon returning to Washington from Singapore, Trump said he had given Kim his direct phone number and added that he would actually speak with him over the weekend. On Monday, the White House denied there had been a phone call between the two. Whether the two of them actually exchanged phone numbers cannot be verified, and we may never know the truth.

The Washington Post listed a total of 3,251 false or misleading statements Trump has made in his 497 days in office. A Canadian daily claimed Trump told outright lies a minimum 5.5 times a day, leaving out exaggerations. From the count alone, Trump is a habitual liar who seriously believes in what he says.

Even as satellite images say otherwise, along with his defense secretary, Trump has maintained that North Korea is destroying a major missile engine production and test site. No matter how many times his aides remind him of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, he keeps saying he wishes to bring home the “32,000 soldiers” there.

The joint statement signed in Singapore was tweaked numerous times to suit his taste. Although the writing says North Korea will work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, Trump claims that refers to Pyongyang’s commitment to completely denuclearize North Korea. Online media outlet Vox said Trump might not even know what he agreed to in Singapore.

Many cite Kim’s determination, Beijing’s role and the U.S. Congress’ opposition as important factors in the future development in negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. But if you ask me, Trump is the biggest risk. He can suddenly change his mind about the North Korean leader, with whom he claims to have strong chemistry, and bring back the chilly standoff.

“I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong,’” he said at the press conference in Singapore. “I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of excuse.”

This is why the Moon Jae-in administration should be prepared for all possibilities, including the high-stakes gamble crashing down.

Trump cannot constrain his impromptu tongue. Our leader is the opposite. In his summit talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow, President Moon was seen with A4 papers in his hand. If both leaders were making a joint press conference, reading from a scripted document may be understandable. But it could be uncivil to read from documents during a one-on-one meeting. Imagine what audiences in Russia and other countries will think upon seeing the video footage of Moon. The dignity and capacity of the leader could be questioned immediately.

President Moon also referred to his script as he conversed with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and a Chinese envoy to the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February. The U.S. attendees wore awkward expressions as the host glanced over the script. Sticking to the script could be better than making mistakes. But a host and guest should have prepared himself. Excess liberty and excess prudence in speech are both poor faculty in leaders.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 27, Page 30