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January 19, 2019

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Trump visit to South Korea sparks wishful thinking

The sight of a pair of B-1B bombers flying above this crowded South Korean capital provided a powerful warning of the threat they pose amid continuing North Korean rhetorical bluster against both the United States and South Korea.

For eight minutes, the two B-1s, based in Guam, roared above awed spectators on the final day of the Seoul Air Show, then joined an array of American and South Korean warplanes on display beside the runway at Seoul Air Base for the benefit of visitors eager for a close-up look.

The flyby of the B-1Bs served as a reminder to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of the possible consequences of North Korean missile tests, especially if fired anywhere near Guam, the island territory that is home to strategic U.S. air and naval bases. They were the same planes that have flown across South Korea, and along the east and west coasts, in response to tests of mid- and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles that have the potential of carrying warheads as far as the United States.

In addition to the B-1s, the latest American F-35s and F-22s, plus South Korean fighters, were parked all week near spacious exhibition halls where manufacturers from dozens of nations showed off aircraft components for potential buyers from around the world.

The Seoul Air Show could hardly have been better timed. While planes of all sorts were roaring around above spectators, about 40 U.S. and Korean warships were churning the surf off both coasts in what was billed as a training mission but was really a show of force. On the first day of the air show came news that Donald Trump would be in Seoul early next month meeting South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and addressing the National Assembly.

The Trump-Moon summit should solidify ideas and strategy while Kim Jong Un shows no signs of compromising on his nukes and missiles. Trump will get to Seoul after a couple of days in Tokyo hosted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and his next stop after Korea will be Beijing and another conversation with President Xi Jinxing, whom he hosted at Mar-a-Lago in April.

It’s as though Korea were on the cusp of war or peace. Trump, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have all said they are ready for anything, and the presence of some of the most advanced air and naval hardware in and around South Korea sends a message that Kim Jong Un is not likely to ignore.

How Kim responds while Trump is courting the leaders of all the countries around him is another matter. It’s quite possible Trump’s travels through the region, also including stops in Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, won’t have the least effect on his defiance of global pressure in either the United Nations or the region.

It will be interesting, though, to see if Trump makes a quick trip to Panmunjom for a firsthand look at North Koreans across the line. That’s a standard stop for high-level visitors, a chance to shake a symbolic fist at North Korea and utter a few fiery words. Or he could actually soften the rhetoric, come out with a message of goodwill and turn the occasion into a chance to lessen tensions.

It’s possible, with that goal in mind, to engage in a little wishful thinking. How about if Trump said he would like to meet Kim Jong Un?

What if he suggested in advance that maybe he and Kim sit down for a talk at Freedom House on the line between the two Koreas?

In all seriousness, a Trump-Kim summit is not remotely possible. The last thing Kim is going to do is go to Panmunjom to meet the American president. Still, it’s nice to imagine the possibilities. Think how simple it could be to open up the border to mail and commerce, tourism and reunions of long-lost relatives — not just a reunion every now and then, depending on the whims of the North Korean leadership, but every day, every weekend.

The opposite scenario is equally fanciful. The U.S. Navy had a submarine off the east coast during the naval exercise from which a “decapitation” team was said to be plotting ways to knock off Kim Jong Un. Probably no phrase, aside from Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea, so enrages the North Koreans as “decapitation.”

There was, however, an aura of make-believe about the whole air show on Seoul. It was as if the Americans and South Koreans were staging a great circus. The planes that crisscross over South Korea just below the north-south line were there in all their glory at Seoul Air Base. It was easy to forget the holy hell they might inflict if Trump’s summits with regional leaders do not go well and he goes for the military option.

Donald Kirk has been a columnist for Korea Times, South China Morning Post many other newspaper and magazines. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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