Trump’s Twitter Engagement with North Korea: A Public Diplomacy Perspective

Muhsin Puthan Purayil analyzes Trump’s summit invitation to Kim Jong-un via Twitter through the lens of public diplomacy. Given the nature of U.S.-North Korea relations coupled with the absence of an environment typically required for effective advocacy, however, he argues that Trump's engagement is unlikely to produce any tangible outcome.

Muhsin Puthan Purayil
July 19, 2019

Following the G20 summit in Osaka, President Donald Trump’s unexpected offer over Twitter to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reiterated Twitter’s potency as a diplomatic tool as well as the harbinger of a new reality in which 140 characters could either facilitate or destroy relations between countries.

Before leaving for South Korea, Trump posted a Tweet, “While there, if Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!”

Two days later, in a historic moment, Trump became the first U.S. president to set foot in North Korea. The visit invoked diverging perceptions across general observers, scholars, and diplomacy practitioners, in part, due to Trump’s proactive Twitter engagement. However, such differing perceptions have seemingly converged, albeit tacitly, on one point: public diplomacy. 

Through the Lens of Public Diplomacy

Evidently, the Trump’s underlying aim in choosing Twitter to present an important foreign policy idea was in order to broadcast the message to the public. That is, it was meant for public visibility and accessibility at large, thereby highlighting the importance of public perception in foreign policy.

Critics view the move as dangerously naive and an attempt to create effective content for Trump’s freshly crafted re-election campaign where he adorns the role of diplomat and peacemaker. To that end, the whole event was merely a significant push for domestic public diplomacy. Victor Cha, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Korea Chair, said, “There’s nothing really to be gained from it except for a photo op.” According to Cha, “The more meetings you do like this without any progress, the more you are legitimizing [Kim Jong-un] as a leader and an acceptable nuclear weapons state.”

All this comes at a time when Trump’s foreign policies are under careful scrutiny. The broader electorate is evidently rejecting Trump’s foreign policies, rendering greater significance to public diplomacy outreach directed at home audiences.  Ironically, in an effort to bolster his global image as a peacemaker, Trump seems to have given Kim Jong more leverage in terms of his public image. As Michael Crowley noted in the The New York Times, Kim “can enhance his stature at home and find more legitimacy on the world stage by meeting with Mr. Trump.”

In contrast, others like South Korean President Moon Jae-in is of the view that the meeting was a historic event and a step toward peace, however small it might be.  Moon said the meeting was “a significant milestone in terms of the peace process on the Korean Peninsula” and that it made him “feel that the flower of peace is truly blossoming on the Korean Peninsula.”

For Moon, the very image of the two leaders coming together to discuss the issue is significant, irrespective of any meaningful outcome to emerge from the meeting itself. This is particularly important, seeing as it was not so long ago tensions were on the rise with both countries striking hardline postures, even going so far as to hurling nuclear threats. 

That said, amidst the Twitter-facilitated unprecedented historic spectacle of public diplomacy engagement, a larger question embedded within the Trump-Kim meeting comes to the fore: can Trump’s public diplomacy outreach get the North to accept a proposal for its denuclearization?

Trump’s Advocacy

According to Nicholas Cull, a professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, advocacy is a core element of public diplomacy. Cull defines “advocacy” as a political actor’s attempt to manage the international environment in order to achieve his foreign policy goals by presenting a particular idea or policy. In this regard, Trump’s move essentially constitutes advocacy.

However, in the realm of advocacy, Trump’s invitation to Kim assumes less practical significance precisely because advocacy is meant for dealing with short-term policy objectives. In the U.S.-North Korea case, deep-seated ideological and political antagonism has widened the gap between the two countries, both of which have maintained adversarial relations since the Korean War. Public diplomacy efforts have hardly been made in the past, at least not to any considerable degree, to improve relations between the two countries. Considering the historical circumstances, possibilities of achieving swift foreign policy gains are extremely modest.    

Moreover, the credibility of advocacy largely depends upon the proximity between the advocate and the actor’s policy. In the case of the U.S. and North Korea, this remains a distant reality. Washington and Pyongyang are still far apart in terms of their interactions and engagements with one other. Even though the immediate U.S. policy objective is to strike an agreement on the North’s denuclearization, in the larger scheme of things such a deal is hard to come by.

Ultimately, attaining intended effects of public diplomacy depend upon long-term engagements and an actor’s credibility. In the U.S.-North Korea case, long-term engagements and interactions are conspicuously lacking, and credibility remains low. 

From a public diplomacy perspective, the possibility of Trump’s Twitter-borne engagement blossoming diplomatically is absolutely remote. This is precisely because any improvement would mean nothing short of convincing North Korea of a nuclear denuclearization, which in the current scenario still eludes the realm of possibility. Even a fragile agreement on the status quo or ambiguous stance from the North without a time-bound commitment would also point to the failure of Trump’s big public diplomacy outreach.

Muhsin Puthan Purayil is a Ph.D. Candidate in political science at University of Hyderabad, India. His research interests include international relations, India’s foreign policy, soft power and diplomacy.