war on the rocks

Entry 63: Nothing is Real and Everything is a Joke

March 12, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 63rd installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

Well, over the weekend all the Trump-Kim Jong Un summit news got real murky. I’m actually a bit reluctant to weigh in until I can get some modest anchoring in uncontested facts.

It started out that South Korea’s presidential envoy visiting the White House was briefing NSC staff when Trump heard about the briefing and asked to see the envoy. Then, supposedly, Trump received a letter from Kim claiming to want a meeting and expressing a willingness to denuclearize. We found out within hours that there was no letter, just the persuasive words of an ally eager to see Trump and Kim meet.

Then Trump tells the South Korean envoy that he accepts the meeting. He then bursts into the White House press room—where he never goes—and tells everyone there to brace themselves for a big announcement at two o’clock, which is his agreement to meet Kim Jong Un. South Korea’s envoy reportedly told Trump that Kim was willing to come to Washington, which sealed the deal for Trump. That also turned out to be untrue, but it was unclear which part was false—that Kim would come to Washington, or that South Korea’s envoy said Kim would come to Washington. There are also conflicting reports about what North Korea said about denuclearization.

According to Joe Scarborough on MSNBC, the only reason Trump agreed to this summit was to distract from ongoing headlines about a scandal involving Trump and former porn star Stormy Daniels. Washington Post reporter Josh Rogin had a corroborating quote from Trump suggesting he didn’t care if the meeting happened but was glad the press praised it for two hours.

Even putting Trump’s motivations aside, everything has been made more jumbled by three very unhelpful factors.

One is the pundit class. Everyone is optimistic or pessimistic for one reason or another (though optimists don’t have much of a logic leg to stand on, but that’s another story). All were quick to fill the information space with their opinions, even though the only thing we knew is that Trump agreed to meet with Kim in principle. Trump put out news bait and we all (even me) bit. How could we not?

The second unhelpful factor was the Trump administration itself failing to express a consistent message, as has been its history. If you look at Trump’s tweets since Friday and compare them with statements from the White House press secretary over the same time frame, you see very little overlap. The White House demanded “concrete actions” toward denuclearization before any meeting even after Trump accepted the meeting. Then they walked that back and said the concrete actions didn’t need to be toward denuclearization but just a freeze of testing. Some administration officials speaking on background say there’s no chance of a summit happening; others say it’s definitely happening. Yet if it would go forward, nobody knows where it might happen, or even when.

The third unhelpful factor is that North Korean media has said nothing about a Trump-Kim meeting, and keeps talking trash about war and refusal to denuclearize as if nothing has changed. There are valid reasons why North Korea wouldn’t publicly recognize a pending meeting with Trump, but they’re the same reasons that would sabotage any meeting and make it irrelevant, or worse. In the near term though, it’s impossible to triangulate the truth about who said what or what’s happening because we can’t get any kind of corroboration from North Korean statements. If we only believe facts at this point, then South Korea might’ve just made all that summit denuclearization stuff up. South Koreans have a history of hearing what they want to hear and allowing words to take on multiple meanings for the sake of furthering policy goals.

With the facts changing literally every couple hours, I was highly distracted the past 72 hours. I think I wrote 600 words all weekend. I also spent a lot of time stacking ammo.

Anyway, I can’t come to any single conclusion about what’s happening when the basis facts keep shifting. For now, it seems like nothing is real and everything is a joke.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.