Trump Has Completely Changed the Pre-Fab Script on North Korea
What is taking place between the United States and North Korea is remarkable. However, I will state at the outset something which we must keep in mind: This is by no means over. The North Koreans have a long history of duplicity. This isn’t over until it’s over.
A Watershed Moment
That being said, the events of the last few months have been remarkable. We’ve gone from Trump and “Rocket Man” vowing each other’s mutual destruction, to all of a sudden planning the first summit between the leaders of each nation — the first time either side’s leaders has directly met with the other’s.
This is a watershed moment. The United States and South Korea remain, legally, at war with North Korea. The fighting ended with an Armistice, not a peace agreement. An Armistice is a cessation of open warfare, not the establishment of permanent peace.
And yet, for the first time ever, a North Korean leader visited South Korea, and both declared their intent to formally end the Korean War. Kim even temporarily suspended his nuclear program, and participated in the Winter Olympics. He’s just freed American prisoners after only the latest meeting with now Secretary of State Pompeo.
Again, this is a watershed moment — or series of them.
So What Changed?
The great change seems to be this: a diplomacy based on reality, not pipe dreams — realpolitik vs. utopian ideals. President Obama had a firm belief in the power of his own rhetoric and ideas. His oratory could convince millions of people around the world that his ideas and rhetoric were, in and of themselves, transformative. So powerfully did Obama spawn this idea in the world’s imagination that he won a Nobel Peace Prize at the very beginning of his first term — a prize he was nominated for before he even became President.
We now know how foolish this naïve belief was. The President who won the Nobel Peace Prize presided over an unprecedented disintegration of world affairs. The “Arab Spring” became a Middle Eastern Nightmare. And the “red line” against the use of chemical weapons by Syria was transgressed with impunity. Time and again the United States showed weakness and a lack of resolve against some of the world’s worst dictators — dictators whose power is dwarfed by our own. The Lilliputians truly bent Gulliver to their will, with Gulliver telling everyone else that all was well.
The sham was obvious to many of us during the Obama presidency. It is doubly obvious now.
What is Different About Trump?
In a word, pragmatism. Trump sometimes acts like a fool, but when it comes to the affairs of this world, he is no fool. Nearly every day, Trump reminds us of the truth of Jesus’ words in Luke 16: “The sons of this world are more shrewd in their dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” Jesus’ word for “shrewd” implies no sin or lack of integrity. On the contrary, it means “prudent” or “wise.” Jesus uses the same word when giving a direct command to the disciples in Matthew 10: “Be wise [“shrewd”] as serpents, and innocent as doves.”
In Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un had to face an American President who simply did not operate according to the pre-fab State Department script that U.S. Presidents have been following for a quarter century. That script had become standardized, delivered by rote, and thus meaningless. Words upon words were undone by inaction. Sure, sometimes there would be sanctions. Sure, sometimes we’d call on China to exert more pressure. But when push came to shove, we rarely truly pushed, and thus we were shoved into a situation where North Korea now has the bargaining chip it has always sought: nuclear weapons.
Because this script was so well-known, so well-tried, and so perfunctorily exercised, the North Koreans learned how to play us like a fiddle. They knew the tune we would sing, and so composed their own music accordingly. Eventually, us singing “our song” became North Korean music — and that music has ended with a nuclear bang.
Trump seems to lack ideology when it comes to human beings. He doesn’t seem to believe either that they are naturally good, or naturally evil (“evil” for Trump seems to mean other people pursuing interests that are opposed to his own). This can sometimes seem dangerous to many of us on the outside. There is a good argument that it is. But in reality, this has freed Trump to evaluate things in a way few truly can — realistically. And if there is anything that has been excluded from the table of US-North Korean relations for the last three decades, it is reality. Hence the “maximum pressure” campaign of the United States — a diplomatic campaign of unprecedented success.
‘Fire and Fury’
Trump saw the North Koreans, a small, impoverished, tyrannical country dupe the strongest superpower that has ever existed. He saw Presidents who were more than happy to attack far more powerful foes (Clinton in the Balkans, Bush in Iraq, etc.) refuse to ever truly threaten the North Koreans. He knew the track record, and he set about to change it. He knew what had been tried hadn’t merely been slow, but hadn’t worked at all.
And so, instead of the pre-packaged script about peace, human rights, and sanctions, Trump warned the North Koreans of “fire and fury.” He rallied an unprecedented number of nations to the side of deep and abiding sanctions. He actually pressured China to abide by those sanctions in unprecedented ways. He continued military drills with the South. He presented to Kim Jong Un the image of a “crazy” and “unhinged” President. The script wasn’t just changed, it was simply tossed out — something Trump hasn’t just done literally, but metaphorically. Donald Trump is not chained to the past ways of doing this. This presents numerous concerns on other fronts. But when it comes to North Korea, it is hard to deny that this lack of attachment to the tried and false has opened up new and previously unimagined possibilities on the Korean peninsula.
A Dictator and a Communist
Kim Jong Un, likewise, seems less chained to past ways of doing things. He is something his father and grandfather definitely were not: a Millennial. He was educated in Europe and came of age in a world of smartphones where exposure to the outside world was easier than ever. He has a unique, and similarly less ideological perspective as Trump.
I am under no illusions — he’s an evil man presiding over an evil system. And yet, Kim has introduced minor market reforms, and has opened up his country in ways the North Korean “necrocracy” (Kim Il Sung, remains, after all, the “Eternal President”) has never been opened. He allowed unprecedented private management of state-owned enterprises, and has publicly appeared with American pop icons such as the Harlem Globetrotters and Dennis Rodman. This is “not your grandfather’s North Korea.” Indeed, Kim Jong Un may, in the future, be seen as North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping — the reforming leader who opened up China’s economy to capitalism. Like Deng, Kim remains a dictator, and a communist. But he’s not your grandfather’s Communist — and certainly not his grandfather’s version of a Communist.
I love Star Trek, and Spock in particular. He observed in Star Trek VI that a famous Vulcan saying was “Only Nixon could go to China.”
Perhaps we will be one day be saying “Only Trump could go to North Korea.”
Winds of change — they are a blowin’. We have reasons to be cautiously optimistic.
Whether I should emphasize “cautiously” or “optimistic” I don’t yet know.