Day 6·Analysis

The North Korea summit: Sound and fury signifying ... anything?

Political scientist Robert E. Kelly says he fears that the theatrics and spectacle surrounding the meeting will kill any chance of achieving results.

Among those reportedly attending is former NBA star Dennis Rodman

The much-anticipated summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is set to take place on June 12, and after weeks of speculation, it looks like it's really going to happen.

The summit would mark the first meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader, a historic moment that becomes all the more remarkable when one considers what the relationship between the leaders looked like less than a year ago.

Last August, Trump threatened to rain "fire and fury" upon North Korea. By September, Trump was calling Kim "Rocket Man," while Kim was referring to Trump as a "dotard."

The relationship has warmed considerably since, but it's still rocky. Less than a month ago the summit was — temporarily — cancelled.

But next week Trump and Kim are set to meet, face-to-face, in Singapore. It's still not clear what's on the agenda, but The New York Post says Dennis Rodman will be there. 

Robert E. Kelly has had a front-row seat in the lead-up to this historic event, but as the American political scientist at South Korea's Pusan National University tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, his expectations for the summit are very low.

A Yonhap News banner announcing the June 12th summit in Singapore. (Yonhap News, South Korea )

Brent Bambury: What does the fact that Dennis Rodman may be at this historic summit in Singapore tell you about the likelihood of it achieving any results?

Robert Kelly: Yeah. So Rodman is coming. So is [Sebastian] Gorka. So is [Sean] Hannity. I think that kind of reflects the lack of seriousness on the American side, right? National Security Adviser Bolton hasn't convened a single meeting in preparation. Donald Trump hasn't been preparing for it; we've known that for a while.

I mean, it's sort of the Trump show, if you will, with the same mix of reality TV theatrics and sort of shambolic unprofessionalism. And I think that has characterized a lot of Donald Trump's presidency, and I worry about that a lot myself. The issues are pretty complex; nuclear weapons and missiles are complex systems. And I'm very concerned that this is not being taken seriously by the White House.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un impersonator Howard X and Donald Trump impersonator Dennis Alan in downtown Singapore on June 8, 2018. (ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

BB: But there was a point when the reality TV approach to diplomacy had some skeptical people thinking that there might be results. When Trump suddenly and unexpectedly accepted Kim's offer in March to meet, there were those who said — and some of them were serious voices — that this might actually work. Can you see that? Are you one of those voices?

RK: No. I mean, if you go back and look at my writing at the time, I was sort of arguing against this almost from the start, because I was very concerned that Donald Trump wouldn't prepare himself for this because the issues are so complex. You know, we've been talking to the North Koreans about nuclear weapons going back to the 1980s.

And we've seen from the president's behaviour on other issues — such as China trade, NAFTA, the Iran deal and so on — that the president just doesn't do a lot of preparation.

I think this is really crippling his presidency, generally speaking, because these are big complicated issues that require a lot of presidential direction and leadership and attention and focus. And I just don't think the president brings that to the table. And so my own sense is Singapore is going to be a bust.

BB: What do you think he is bringing to the table? I mean, he sees himself as an enormously talented dealmaker. What is his endgame here?

RK: Right. I think for the president, at this point, this thing is mostly about the publicity and the television. As we know, Fox is coming with that whole sort of media complex. This will be broadcast to the president's political base in the United States. I mean, this is being fitted around the Trump presidency's concerns, I would argue, rather than the actual issues of nuclear disarmament.

I'm actually fairly skeptical that anything big will come of it. But I think the president doesn't really care at this point, which is why he continued to push forward with it — even as it's kind of come apart in the last couple weeks. Even as it become more apparent the North Koreans weren't going to give up nuclear weapons, the president has pushed ahead with it anyway, because I think the media strategy is what matters.

US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo look at North Korean general Kim Yong-chol (Kim Jong-un's right-hand man) outside the White House on June 1, 2018. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

BB: Then how are the North Koreans reading this? I mean, Kim Jong-un is going to be sitting on the other side of the table. What is his endgame here and how do you think he might be taking advantage of what you describe as being a pretty chaotic mission from the Americans?

RK: I think the Kims are pretty comfortable with this actually, because I think Kim Jong-un is coming not really to negotiate about nuclear weapons. I think the North Koreans actually want to keep them. They spent 50 years developing these things, they endured brutal sanctions and isolation for more than two decades. They provide direct nuclear deterrence against the U.S. mainland, so they're a powerful shield against American regime change. I think the North Koreans don't want to give these things up.

I think what they really want — and they told us this actually — is they want a one-on-one meeting with the American president, because the photographs of their leader meeting the American president, on equal terms, helps to legitimize Kim Jong-un's rule and helps to legitimize North Korea as a separate, distinct Korean state from South Korea. So for the North Koreans, the whole point of this is the media. They want photographs of themselves meeting Donald Trump.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in talk at the border village of Panmunjom, South Korea on April 27th, 2018. (Korea Summit Press Pool via AP)

BB: When this meeting is over, the issues on the peninsula will remain. But there's been this protocol for how U.S. officials interact with North Korea. I'm thinking of Bill Clinton at the hostage exchange. This summit throws all that protocol out the window. What are the consequences of that? What happens next?

RK: When Bill Clinton went to get the hostages out, he sat there sort of very grim-faced and stony-faced, and he was sort of biting his tongue, doing his duty to get the people out. And then he left.

I'm a little concerned that President Trump is going to go up there and be the way Trump is. He is going to be sort of jovial and vivacious and laugh a lot. And because he's the President of the United States, all that sort of signals an acceptance and a normalization of North Korea.

And it's important to remember that North Korea is the world's worst human rights abuser. You know, this is a big thing and the president is taking it far too lightly. And I worry about what the consequences of this thing are going to be.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks, as National security adviser John Bolton listens, during a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, on May 22, 2018, at the White House. (Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images)

BB: So what's the worst-case scenario of what could come out of the summit?

RK: That it goes back to where it was last year — we backslide to 'fire and fury' and 'fat man' and 'dotard,' and 'Rocket Man' and all that. The two of them meet. It goes very badly. They start insulting each other. They storm out of the room and then John Bolton is waiting in the wings to say, 'we have to strike these people.' Because it's pretty clear that one of the reasons Bolton's not preparing is because he doesn't want this to succeed.

On the other hand, the best possible outcome, I think, at this point — given how badly organized it's been — is a kind of weak statement saying something to the effect of: 'We all support denuclearization of North Korea.' Maybe some missiles on the North Korean side are cut up in exchange for some movement of American soldiers out of the peninsula, or something small like that. There's just not enough time. The Trump people just threw it together on the fly, too late. You're just not going to get a major deal out of this thing.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shakes hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Military Demarcation Line that divides their countries on April 27th, 2018. (KOREA SUMMIT PRESS POOL/AFP/Getty Images)

BB: How is all of this being seen in South Korea? Do you think that they're seeing it the way that you see it, or do you think that they're hoping for some kind of a breakthrough?

RK: I think that South Koreans are beginning to realize that a breakthrough is not going to come from this, and I think this is why the South Korean president Moon Jae-in has been asking, in the last week or so, to actually come and participate and make this thing into a trilateral. Trump, of course, is not going to permit that because he doesn't want to share the spotlight. But I think the South Koreans are sort of beginning to wonder about whether or not anything's going to come of this.

But they were very, very unnerved by Trump's war threats from last year. And so, keeping Trump tied to a diplomatic track, keeping Trump going to Singapore, talking about the Nobel Prize, all of this stuff is designed to keep Donald Trump from backsliding to fire and fury. So as long as Trump is talking, he's not pulling the trigger. So even if it's going to be a sort of crazy circus, it's still — if you will — a win for the South Koreans because it keeps the peace momentum rolling.

BB: Let me ask you, not as an expert but as an American citizen, did you ever think diplomacy would come to this?

RK: No, I didn't. This is embarrassing, to be perfectly honest. Something this important shouldn't be thrown together this sloppily. If the Obama administration had done this, President Obama would have been rightfully torn to pieces in the media. And I'm just amazed at how little effort the Trump people put into this.

This is just slapdash. It's just shoddy at this point and nothing is going to come from it because now it's all just PR. The president wants to be on TV and Kim wants the photographs and the meeting itself is going to be awash.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Robert E. Kelly, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.