Taiwan, North Korea and the Trump Show

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Monday June 25, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The Fanfare and hype of the much-touted meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has passed.

However, since so many gathered to watch this spectacle without substance, a key question lingers: "It was theatrical and almost entertaining but so what?"

No one can deny that the meeting ran smoothly. Months earlier these two adversaries were threatening to "nuke" each other and now they now stood together like best buds.

Yes, the Singapore schmooze ran smoothly. It ran so smoothly that it left pre-scripted, pre-staged impressions. Like two aging actors who realize that time is running out and neither had yet claimed an Oscar or Nobel Prize, Trump and Kim found agreement in meeting. Something had to be done.

And so as if following the lead of the vying characters, Velma and Roxie in the musical, Chicago, the stage was set for Trump and Kim to strike the pose and jointly sing, "I Can't Do It Alone."

That said, what else drove this summit of two apparently preening peacocks?

For Trump the answer is easy. He is a showboat, a grandstander. He feeds on the attention-grabbing adrenalin rush such things bring. He loves to "wing it" boasting of his self-acclaimed "gut feelings."

That is his style. He can be good of course at working one-off real estate deals, especially where the needs of oligarchs can be exploited. But his weakness remains that he lacks the know-how to carry through in anything of substance that demands continued attention.

Thus in the past, Trump failed in numerous ventures ranging from running a decent university to a profit-making casino.

Trump's inability to handle this nitty-gritty and carry through is further seen in the fact that the water problem in Flint, Michigan remains; and hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico still suffers. For those locations, once they are off the grid of showboat diplomacy, Trump loses interest.

Further, Trump has never been a team player. At any meeting that demands team effort, he maintains his reputation of being the alleged "turd in the punchbowl." He is more adept at insulting allies than working with them as the recent G-7 meeting showed.

Thus as regards Singapore, the commemorative coins had been printed and Trump needed a new distraction from the adult film star Stormy Daniels and the on-going investigations by special counsel Mueller.

Whatever else would go down, he could at least brag and say: "See, I met with Kim Jong-un. No US president has done that."

Yes, the devil remains in the details of Singapore and so far the only detail is a signed paper that they met.

The deeper question therefore comes with the reasons why Kim Jung-un agreed to this meeting. Here the lack of a free press in North Korea makes it more difficult to find an answer. What challenges is Kim facing that drove his need to meet?

The summit certainly helped him cement his national prestige. After decades of effort, North Korea got the President of the United States to meet with their leader as an equal and without concessions. However, there needs to be something more.

Perhaps this was hastened with the collapse of North Korea's main nuclear test site in Punggye-ri and North Korea needed an interlude of time to rebuild.

Or, perhaps Kim was ready for a new stage of developing his country's economy.

However, a more focused answer revolves around the long-term plans of who Kim's successor will be. How can this be worked out? How can he guarantee that North Koreans get a better deal?

I suggest that behind the curtain of Singapore are two key factors: Kim's astute sister, Kim Yo-jong and their joint long term planning on leadership succession and development for North Korea.

Kim Yo-jong is trusted, and yet in macho North Korea, she could never expect to be the leader; her role is more to be the woman behind the throne. She is needed for advice on what will happen as Kim Jong-un ages?

In addition, like Trump, Kim has his own skeletons in his closet. He might not have numerous bankruptcies but there is the more deadly assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong-nam and the execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek.

Were these necessary? Did they disturb Kim's thoughts on dynastic succession and even the future direction of North Korea to unify with the South?

Certainly, Kim must further spin away the cruel suppressive years of his family's dominance.

Taiwanese who suffered under the one-party state of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) are no strangers to the long-suffering issues of people under such dictators.

In all of this, US basketball player, Dennis Rodman, appears as a type of court jester and one who can bring humor and light-heartedness. He should not be denied his rightful place in this showman's game.

It might be that I am a Chicago Bull's fan, but Rodman brings a unique perspective. He is a peacock in his own right, but one who is more straightforward and honest and ironically less prone to demand attention of underlings than Trump and Kim Jong-un are.

Rodman also is a man who can deal with the two. He knows that despite their trappings both are mortals. Rodman's visits to the then "hermit Kingdom" in reality demonstrated that the mysterious Kim Jong-un was not that mysterious. For all his power, he likes basketball and has a childlike side.

As for Trump, Dennis with his own outlandishness does not need to cater to Trump's showboat. In his own way, Rodman understands that this is not about rocket science, but two vain men seeking a place on the stage which he knows has its ups and downs.

What then does this mean for Taiwan? What lessons are to be gleaned?

Taiwanese again must look on this from a pragmatic distance. They must profit when the showboat winds blow their way, but never take them as a guarantee. Take advantage of Trump's need for showboat attention, but never rely on it.

As an example of show without substance, Taiwanese can look at the recently hyped Taiwan Travel Act (TTA). It proclaimed that any high-ranking US official could visit Taiwan.

A great opportunity to prove that this was more than "show" immediately presented itself when the US dedicated its new American Institute in Taiwan complex in Taipei's Neihu District.

Officials came from the US, but there was no person of substance, who had not been to Taiwan before. It was a golden opportunity but it quickly slipped away without fanfare.

One could argue that the US did not want to take distract from the "historic" Singapore schmooze but as has been shown, Singapore also was more about show than substance.

In the same vein, when China required that US airlines list Taiwan as a province of China, the US talked the talk by urging airlines not to bow to China's whims, but it did little of substance to walk the walk. No tariffs or retaliation came in support of Taiwan.

Again, when Taiwan was shut out of the World Health Assembly meeting in Switzerland, the US talked the talk of protest, but refrained from walking the walk. Where were Taiwan's friends in all these cases when more than words would help?

Trump on the other hand has eagerly thrown tariff sanctions on US allies at the G-7 and elsewhere but backs off on non-allies.

Too often he appears to desire a world order that is a good old boys club where leaders such as unchallenged dictators are allowed to make their own deals, pardon their loyal friends, and cater to oligarchs who of course will later reward them.

As for their subjects they graciously throw crumbs to their minions.

This is what Taiwanese therefore must constantly observe and prioritize a Machiavellian pragmatism.

Taiwan has a hard won democracy and it must constantly seek kinship with those who will not only talk the talk but also walk the walk, be they the US's allies such as Japan or anyone else who will protect the nation's democracy.