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December 18, 2018

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Amid the media circus surrounding Trump, N.Korea is a sideshow

Controversy surrounding President Donald Trump is so intense that you have to wonder whether he’s going to want the job beyond his current four-year term. Surfing the morning news, you get to listen to nonstop attacks from MSNBC on the left, equally hard-hitting defenses from Fox on the right — and not all that much in between.

Trump himself goes on with barbs at “fake news” in the middle of a firestorm that’s partly of his own making. Sometimes you doubt he’s thought through what he’s saying as when he criticizes a Navy SEAL team for not having taken out Osama bin Laden long before he was killed in a raid in the compound where he was staying not far from a Pakistan army base. And you find it hard to believe he could have been so hard on the late Sen. John McCain, captured and imprisoned for years after his plane was shot down during the Vietnam War.

Nor, for that matter, can anyone, really, see why Trump, so great at playing to his base among red-blooded Americans who can’t stand the media elitists who keep bashing him, would not have visited the Marine cemetery during his recent trip to France or, for that matter, have taken a bow at the Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day. Yes, Trump has said he should have visited Arlington, so why doesn’t he make the trek right now across the Potomac from the White House? The cemetery is open every day, not just Veterans Day.

The daily tirades, the sniping, the words of wisdom from panelists and analysts, capture your attention in a drama that never gets boring, but they’re also a massive distraction. Has Trump considered seriously what he’s going to say to Kim Jong Un if they do meet again for that second summit? Vice President Mike Pence, in Singapore at the recent confab of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, spoke highly of Trump’s success in getting Kim to stop threatening the United States with nukes and missiles, but he also raised a couple of issues that might not be to Kim’s liking.

For one thing, Pence stuck to the mantra of CVID (complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization). While Kim might agree in an abstract sense on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, as he did at his first summit with Trump in Singapore in June, it’s inconceivable he’s going to throw out all his nukes and missiles and the facilities for making them. In fact, there’s little doubt that North Korean engineers right now are making more of them or at least working on the means to do so.

For another, the North Koreans are not going to produce a list of everything to do with their nukes and missiles. A report released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on the basis of commercial satellite imagery developed by Joseph Bermudez suggested the scope of the program.

No doubt the Pentagon knew about all that from its own spy satellites, but North Korea has a lot of other sites hidden away in nooks and crannies, caves and tunnels all over the country. The show that Kim has made of seeming to destroy a couple of them has fooled no one.

Not that those realities would deter Trump from saying, fine, I’d be glad to talk to the man. He might even consider signing another joint statement with Kim as they did in Singapore. This time around, it would be a “peace declaration” committing both countries to formally “ending” the Korean War.

But what if Kim avoided agreeing to a listing of anything or making a commitment, a real promise, of CVID? Trump has a lot of other stuff going on. Rather than answer such questions, he would prefer to leave North Korea to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, still looking for another meeting with his North Korean interlocutor, Kim Yong-chol, to talk about the timing and setting for a summit.

No matter, national security adviser John Bolton will have trouble convincing his boss of the need to read up on what North Korea is doing. The president is too busy tweeting about political foes, playing games with the media that he loves to hate, making pronouncements about everyone else’s mistakes.

You think all that’s a sideshow? For Trump, North Korea is the sideshow.

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