SEOUL—The U.S. Eighth Army Band played a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Come Marching In,” and U.S. ambassador Harry Harris, resplendent in a double-breasted dark grey pin-stripe suit, mixed and mingled with the thousand or so guests.
The occasion was the annual Independence Day July 4 bash staged by the American embassy two weeks early this year to get it out of the way before President Donald Trump heaves into view this weekend for yet another exercise in summitry focusing on, what else, North Korea’s nuclear program.
“It’s exciting,” was about all Harris, a retired admiral who commanded U.S. forces in the Pacific before coming here a year ago, would say. When Trump arrives Saturday he will have just done two days palavering, including a portentous sidelines seance with China’s President Xi Jinping, at the G20 Summit in Osaka.
There’s good reason for the excitement. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, who will also be in Osaka, would hope when he hosts Trump in Seoul to talk him into serious planning for a third summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un as a chance to recover from the disaster of their summit in Hanoi in February.
It is not coincidental that Kim wrote what Trump said was a “beautiful letter” as Kim was about to meet Xi in Pyongyang last week. Apart from happy birthday wishes, the contents of the letter have not been divulged, but Xi presumably urged Kim to get back together with Trump face to face. Kim might have sent his latest billet-doux earlier—Trump’s birthday was June 14. No problem. Trump was happy to respond with an “excellent” letter full of “interesting” words, according to Kim. Clearly the North Korean leader wanted to hear what Xi had to say before getting back to POTUS for more.
What might the Trumpster and the Kimster have been telling one another? Neither has released the texts, but speculation was rampant at the lavish July 4 blast at Seoul’s Grand Hyatt as guests sampled American-style fare ranging from baked macaroni to burgers and franks. Wouldn’t it be great, asked the cognoscenti, if Trump and Kim were to meet in the truce village of Panmunjom on the North-South line 40 miles north of here before Trump flies back home on Sunday?
Cocktail patter took on the force of such a strong rumor that an unnamed U.S. official felt compelled to issue a formal denial, according to Seoul’s Yonhap news agency, saying simply there were “no plans” for such a meeting. “The president’s there to see President Moon,” the official was quoted as saying.
None of which stopped anyone from speculating on what would certainly be an historic photo-op: the spectacle of Trump and Kim shaking hands on the line in the joint security area (JSA) at Panmunjom. Some even were placing small bets—odds ranging from a thousand to one to maybe one in five.
“In a normal world, the chance would be zero,” says David Straub, a former senior diplomat in the U.S. embassy here, “but because Donald Trump doesn’t know the rules, much less play by them, the possibility can’t be totally excluded.” Even so, he says, “I wouldn’t put the odds above one in a hundred.”
How, Straub asks, could Trump “really risk another substance-less summit meeting with a man who allows his people no freedom and who murders his own closest relatives?”
Steve Tharp, a retired army officer who’s been following the confrontation of forces on the Korean peninsula for most of his career, is barely more optimistic.
“I would say that there is a chance for a last-minute JSA [joint security area] summit, but I would put it at 10 percent or less right now,” he says. “The problem is that Kim Jong Un can’t take another diplomatic failure like the Vietnam summit.”