Consider two images of two United States presidents at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Korea. The two images convey very different messages, very different possibilities. Which do you prefer?
The first image is of President Obama peering through military binoculars into North Korea. He is shielded behind bulletproof glass and a sandbagged observation post. South Korean (ROK) and American soldiers flank him. This image reflects the state of US-Korean policy for the past half-century.
The second image has more in it, and not in it, than a casual observer would see. The concrete curb, over which President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un are stepping, marks the dividing line between the two Koreas, defined in the armistice a half-century ago. The blue buildings are half on the north and half on the south. The southern half is controlled by the United Nations Command, while the northern is controlled by North Korean forces. For half a century, guard forces have faced off in ritualized vigilance.
With that context, consider what happened on the last weekend of June 2019. Notice that there are no military uniforms in sight. The two nation’s elite protective services, guarding the President of the United States and the hereditary leader of North Korea, took over the space for the hours needed to ensure their principals would be secure. The uniforms were dark suits instead of business-equivalent uniforms. The focus was protection rather than confrontation. This was a masterful employment of information as a tool of national policy, an informally choreographed act of public diplomacy.
President Trump set this moment in motion by Twitter, his go-to channel for information operations on multiple levels. It reminded me of an informal mentorship moment I had with a commanding general some years ago. This general would send out an e-mail calendar invitation to his staff when he was flying into his headquarters. Everyone in this lean staff was invited to join him for a morning “run, walk, or skate.” He always ran at a pace anyone in reasonable shape could match, and staff members would slide up alongside, exchange a few words, then fall back or move forward along the route. What was this accomplishing?
“I use these runs like other generals use golf,” my commander taught me. “When you are out playing golf, people talk. If the boss likes an idea, you get approval or an invitation to present it at the office. If not, you are just playing golf, so no one loses status.”
A tweet cuts out all the formal diplomatic structures and all the reputations at risk along the way. Because it is just a tweet, and not formal policy, there is no requirement to respond. If Kim had decided he just wasn’t going to be available, it would be a missed opportunity but not a failed formal initiative.
Kim accepted and the two nation’s security and diplomatic teams scrabbled to catch up with their principals’ intent. The militaries stepped back, and the personal protective forces stepped in, establishing coordinated security for the hours around the two leaders’ visit. The North Korean security team was sufficiently disciplined and professional to block the western press mob while recognizing the authority of President Trump’s new press secretary. Between the braying press pack and the large young men in dark suits, Stephanie Grisham got a bit bruised, but created the space for a couple of western reporters to get through and take the photographs to tell the story.
Grisham’s first days on the new job bode well, as she displayed toughness and poise under pressure. That is her setting the pick to roll a couple of reporters by the much bigger North Korean security man. Understand, everyone in the frame is doing their job. No one is being undisciplined on either government’s side. The big young man is doing his job, as instructed, and so is the tough lady who has her act together, focused on her boss’s need and intent in this moment.
Credit to Mike Gallagher for verbally painting the pictures at the top on his show. I went looking for the best images of each event and pulled them together into the top graphic and this story.