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For South Koreans, Singapore summit was far from a failure

We've made much of what President Donald Trump failed to get from Kim Jong Un in Singapore.Those failures woul...

Posted: Jun 18, 2018 3:48 PM
Updated: Jun 18, 2018 3:48 PM

We've made much of what President Donald Trump failed to get from Kim Jong Un in Singapore.

Those failures would include steps toward verifiable irreversible denuclearization -- and a guarantee of an end to human rights abuses. Those are just a couple of the major issues.

Then there's what he gave away: A sloppy salute and the upper hand in what should have been the toughest negotiation of his life. Negotiations held with an insecure hermit dictator who was said by South Korean intelligence sources to have ordered the murder of his half brother.

In South Korea, however, the prism is different. Discussions center less on Trump's achievements or lack of them, or his failures to live up to his own word, and more on the possibilities his summit opened up -- in particular his new relationship with Kim. Which is why they welcome phone calls between the pair.

Singapore was not a failure for many in South Korea, but an opportunity.

According to a Gallup survey of more than 1,000 people two days after the summit, two thirds of the population said they think the Kim/Trump meeting was a success. Only one in 10 thought it a failure.

Among Trump's many giveaways was his phone number. It was "a very direct number," he told journalists at the White House on Friday. And it was given to the man who only months earlier he called "little rocket man" and who called him a "dotard."

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in's special adviser, Moon Chung-in, told me he believes the bond built between the two leaders in Singapore will "allow them to call each other up if there are problems."

In South Korea, they reflect less on some of Trump's now infamous encounters with world leaders, like Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and more on the possibility of a positive way forward.

Direct communication is how they manage their engagement with Kim's regime too, prioritizing communications and goodwill since the North-South summit in late April.

This week, a South Korean delegation is expected to venture into the shuttered joint North-South Kaesong Industrial Complex to prepare and repair the liaison office between the two nations.

Its closure two years ago came in retaliation for Kim's rocket and bomb making blitz and cost tens of thousands of North Koreans jobs.

South of the border, in Seoul, it may hurt to see Trump's apparently one-sided dialogue with Kim -- but they are trying to be pragmatic.

On the day of the summit, one elderly resident in the South Korean capital told CNN, "my mother was killed by a bullet in the Korean war, North Korea were a sworn enemy ... now the key is in the door it just needs to be turned."

President Moon has been criticized for being overly optimistic about his northern neighbor's true intent, for misleading Trump about the limits of engagement, yet his hopefulness is also shared by his countrymen.

What many South Koreans hope they are now seeing is a recalibration by Kim of the world around him, a world that is changing faster than they fear many analysts in Washingtonappreciate.

They see Kim as recognizing he is unable to keep the world at bay, despite his frightening arsenal of weapons.

His nuclear bombs and ICBMs are no match for the South Korean "soaps" that are increasingly enjoyed by Pyongyang's residents, filling their living rooms with images of a cornucopia of goods they can otherwise only dream of.

In his annual New Year's address in 2017, Kim admitted responsibility for his people's hardships. He teared up, albeit in a way a crocodile might, as he said he was sorry for not doing better by them. "I have spent the last year in sadness due to self-defeating ability, I will put my wholehearted effort to do better," he said.

The economic plight existed well before the tighter sanctions Trump pushed China to enforce late last year, but his words were an indication for South Koreans that at least Kim recognized that if he didn't fix his economy he could be overthrown.

In his New Year speech this year, Kim told North Koreans that now that the country had achieved a nuclear bomb he would channel his efforts toward improving the economy.

If South Koreans needed any further evidence Kim is accepting the outside world, and that his people are changing around him, they point to the 42-minute North Korean propaganda video of Kim's trip to Singapore.

In full view of his people, via his state TV cameras, he strutted Singapore's skyline, one of Asia's richest cities.

If Kim was still trying to shutter his people from a world he has denied them all their lives, the South Korean logic assumes, he wouldn't have had those pictures broadcast around his nation.

It does not make him any less an evil tyrant. But for the South Koreans, it makes him an evil tyrant who might just be ready for some change.

Among the clues studied avidly south of the border is the output of North Korean news agencies: multitudinous, mostly vacuous and usually the verbose ramblings of official press releases.

Seen in hindsight following Trump's comments in Singapore about condo construction on the North Korean coast, and his own schmaltzy economy-first video for Kim, one recent news alert from Pyongyang seems to hint that Kim already has this on his mind.

A Korean Central News Agency report on June 8, quoting China's state-run news agency, detailed the following: "Buildings for the Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist area under construction have already taken their shapes, and outer design and afforestation and greening are also very unique."

The seaside destination is largely controlled by Kim's family. The Chinese state-run news agency gushingly describes the "astonishing achievements" as "the epitome of the DPRK today".

It points to Kim not just wanting sanctions gone so he can stay in power, but gone so that he can make more money off the backs of his people.

That appears to be the assessment of President Moon's special adviser, too. Following the summit he briefed journalists, "It seems there is a paradigm change in North Korea. I think he's trying to pursue rich nation first and then military enforcement but his predecessors realized that prosperity could not be realized after the military power."

The danger remains that without guarantees of an end to human rights abuses, however good Trump's new dialogue with Kim might get, a nukes-for-sanctions-relief deal won't end the dictator's barbaric treatment of his countrymen.

For South Korea right now, that it appears to be a risk they are willing to accept. Better in their opinion to paraphrase Winston Churchill -- "meeting jaw to jaw is better than war."

Even so, despite their optimism about future Trump phone calls, only one half the people surveyed in the Gallup poll actually trust Kim to keep his word, while one quarter are sure he won't.

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