The debate between Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has unleashed a wave of optimism that is making it difficult to maintain healthy suspicion about what is going on beneath the surface of this much-hyped summit.
Everything that Donald Trump does has an element of surprise. He has too amiably been called “a disruptive leader.” Time will tell whether or not that disruption has been positive. But those who write the daily stories – journalists, academics, molders of opinion – seem to agree that the summit with North Korean dictator Kim these past few days in Singapore has meant a positive entry on the balance sheet.
After more than a half century of open conflict on the Korean Peninsula, with every missile test by the Communist regime giving rise to a panic attack, the agreement announced in Singapore to “denuclearize” this region of Asia looks like a huge victory. And like recognition for the unorthodox politics that propel Trump, after making threats about having the big red button, after calling the heir to the Kim dynasty “rocket man,” and even after canceling the meeting earlier because he didn’t like the tone, the 45th U.S. president seems to have gotten his way.
The summit was over, “rocket man” scaled back his ambitions, and Trump got the photo he was waiting for, to legitimize his style and his vision that a hard and aggressive United States is the best thing that can happen for world peace.
However, there are other ways of looking at what happened.
To begin with, the importance that Trump gives to the North Korean regime has a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy about it. Four or five years ago, was anybody talking about North Korea, except to report on the famines? Did many experts even take those missile tests, which seemed designed to get a few crumbs from China or the U.S., seriously? Was that wretched country, under the thumb of a feudal Communist regime, really a player on the world stage, before Trump put it there? Clearly, the answer is no.
Almost overnight, Kim became the biggest threat to world peace. Almost overnight, Trump managed to neutralize the threat. Like the reality show expert he is, Trump creates the need for us, and then he fills it. The problem is the price.
First, it is true about Trump creating the need and filling it because it does not really seem reasonable for the president of the greatest world power to legitimize with a handshake a Communist dictatorship which is starving its people, which is led by a man who dedicates himself to erecting statues to his father and grandfather that are bigger than The Sphinx.
Second, it is true because in reality very few people could seriously believe that a country whose population is on average 2 inches shorter than their cousins on the south side of the 58th parallel, purely because of the lack of food, can be considered a realistic threat to the richest country in the world.* The U.S. even had to pay for North Korea’s hotel rooms in Singapore, because the regime could not afford it.
And third, it is true because it does not seem that there is really a chance of armed conflict in this region. However powerful and hegemonic the U.S. may be today, the chance of a war in an area so close to China, without intervention by that country, hardly seems credible. It would be as if China bombed Puerto Rico or Haiti tomorrow. Does anyone believe that the U.S. would tolerate that? Would China?
Apart from that, by making this issue the center of worldwide debate, Trump has managed to sidestep two really serious issues into which his policies have submerged the world. On the one hand, there is the trade war he earnestly threatens to let loose on the planet, with unpredictable consequences. And on the other hand, there is his own incursion into the Middle East, like a bull in a china shop, with his explicit support for Israel and Saudi Arabia in their dirty war with Iran.
As with all that Trump does, it is difficult to know if his actions grow out of thorough studies and rigorous analyses, or if they are impulsive whims with nothing to back them up. It would be wonderful to be able to believe that it is all about a master chess move to destabilize China, disarming it down to its most faithful pawn, while at the same time getting a foothold in China’s backyard. To believe that everything is part of a bigger plan that seeks to slow down China’s unstoppable growth, as well as applying pressure to gain commercial advantage for the U.S. To believe that underneath it all, there is method, study, intelligence.
The reality doesn’t support optimism. Far from surrounding himself with sharp analytical minds, Trump is surrounded by a group of myopic “hawks” who believe that the world can be managed by threats and propaganda campaigns.
It is to be hoped that reality will refute this fear. But analyzing the facts with the level of naiveté that many people have makes this seem unlikely.
* Translator’s note: Prior to the so-called Korean War, the boundary between North and South Korea lay approximately along the 38th, not the 58th, parallel; the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which has divided the two countries since the Armistice Agreement which ended fighting, crosses the 38th parallel, but does not follow it.