On June 12, 2018, history was made…but just a little bit. I don’t mean to discredit those who made it happen in saying that, nor do I mean to diminish its significance. Allow me to explain.
President Donald Trump became the first American president to meet with a leader of North Korea. Since the creation of North Korea in the 1950s, the isolationist nation has been backed by the USSR, and then by Russia and China. It has been run by a communist dictator since conception.
It should be mentioned, though it should go without saying, that the North Korean government is the most oppressive in the world – not one of the most. The most. It currently has over 120,000 of its own citizens imprisoned in Nazi-style concentration camps. Kim has ordered over 300 executions of his political enemies since being in office, and citizens of other nations are kidnapped for their specialized skills. Famine is common, the press is highly, highly controlled, and propaganda is constantly being fed to the people, often via loud speaker throughout the cities. Its borders, shared with South Korea, China, and Russia, are closed and are among the most heavily guarded and policed in the world. Oh, and each household is required to have a picture of Kim Jong-Un on display.
North and South Korea have technically been at war since the 1950s, though fighting ended in an armistice back in 1953. When the leaders of the two nations met recently – another historic summit – officially ending the war was a top priority.
Now, with the Trump-Kim summit behind us, the big question with all of this pomp is whether or not it actually accomplished anything. Was there progress towards…something? Or was it just a bunch of meaningless optics?
An Argument for Optics
On June 12th, Trump and Kim met on a red carpet in Singapore. They shook hands for 13 seconds, they smiled, they patted each other on the back, and they had a chat. They sat alone in a room for a while, with only their interpreters present, and then Trump gave a press conference, which is a rare occurrence in and of itself.
The meeting was meticulously orchestrated by the North Koreans. It was important to them that North Korea was presented to the world on the same level as the United States. A backdrop of alternating American and North Korean flags lined the red carpet where the two leaders first met. As an American, that was uncomfortable to see. With everything going on with us domestically around the conversation of disrespecting the American flag – this felt pretty disrespectful. The US and North Korea are not equals, however you slice it.
Still, optics and appeasing egos are important. North Korean leaders have long sought to be recognized on the world stage as legitimate and reputable, but the fact has always remained that they were never reputable. They were dictators of the worst sort, so they were never granted the recognition they sought.
Is a concession around the flags a minor one in respect to the bigger picture if it gets a volatile nation to come to the negotiating table, or does it legitimize a despot and validate his chosen methods of governing?
As if the flags weren’t enough, Trump’s praise of Kim following the meeting was unsettling. He lauded him as being funny and smart, and called him “talented” for successfully taking over a government in his mid-20s upon the death of his father. When asked about Kim’s regular killing and imprisonment of his political opponents and the starvation of his own people, Trump responded that Kim “ran it tough.”
To diminish the human rights crisis in North Korea as simply governing with a firm hand – that’s terrifying. Again, maybe Trump’s just playing nice with Kim in an effort to achieve some kind of amicable agreement with him, but spoken words can leave lasting impressions and can color the opinions of the less informed. In the case of a president’s spoken words, they can set precedents and determine or undermine foreign relations. This particular president is especially unpredictable when it comes to the things he says, and he’s even admitted that he often makes things up on the spot and states them as fact.
This is dangerous. Do not get it twisted.
Of course, being able to say that he was the first American president to meet with a North Korean leader seems to be something Trump was after. Again, optics and ego. Since the summit, he’s said that Kim told him he was the only US president who could have made this summit work – whatever that means. Actually, this summit had been offered to several presidents, but none of them took up North Korea on the offer.
Why didn’t they? We have to think about goals, here. Is denuclearization the goal? Or peacekeeping? Or appeasing a communist dictator?
North Korea had already promised past presidents that they would denuclearize, but they clearly have not kept that promise. This has been going on for 30+ years. It’s nothing new. In that time, they’ve developed missiles far-reaching enough to impact Chicago and they’ve built a hydrogen bomb. Kim made this same promise again to Trump (very broadly; no specifics), even though just a few weeks ago he stated in no uncertain terms that he would not give the United States a complete denuclearization.
And why would he? That’s his main bargaining chip. That’s the thing that gives him any kind of power on the world stage. That’s the thing keeping him alive (Remember what happened to Gaddafi?).
The argument is that economic sanction relief would incentivize Kim to denuclearize. To this point, Trump proposed beachside resorts and a booming tourism industry in North Korea – everything North Korea could be. He presented Kim with a video presentation of what a more prosperous North Korea could look like.
Maybe this will all work to accomplish something. At this point, anything’s worth a try to help stabilize a situation that hasn’t been stable for over 60 years. My personal opinion, if you’re interested, is that tourism isn’t Kim’s priority. His priority seems to be maintaining power over his people and asserting the appearance of that power on the world stage.
An Argument for Progress
Any baby step taken is progress…right? What actually came from this summit, beyond the optics, the egos, and the handshakes?
Not a whole lot, at least not for us.
As mentioned earlier, Kim promised to denuclearize, but there were no details laid out. How could there have been? They met for the first time ever for a few hours with hardly any negotiations leading up to the summit. Also, as aforementioned, North Korea had promised to do this in the past, and then they just didn’t.
No timeline for denuclearization was set, but Trump said it would be done as soon as “scientifically” possible. Trump’s idea of what denuclearization would look like is pretty absolute, too. The reason he gave for not liking the Iran Deal was that it was too lenient. Kim has stated explicitly that he’s against complete denuclearization because he’s seen what’s happened to other nations in similar situations – the government was overthrown, the country was flung into chaos, and the dictator was killed.
Another point for North Korea? They have essentially been validated by the greatest power in the west, which is what they’ve always wanted. Conversely, the US has been debased and devalued by lowering ourselves to North Korea’s level and aligning ourselves with a communist dictator.
We have to consider, though, the possibility that the American government and/or Trump know what they’re doing. They’re hopefully weighing the risk of nuclear war against the temporary discomfort of letting a trigger-happy dictator fancy himself one of the cool kids.
Oh, and a document was signed. The document was only about a page and a half long and it basically stated that the US and North Korea would work together towards building a peaceful relationship. No details. No mention of what that would look like. So, while it’s arguably nothing, it could also arguably be a step in the right direction.
Finally – and this is a big one – Trump casually mentioned during a press conference that he would be putting an end to the joint military exercises between the US and South Korea. He mentioned this publicly before mentioning it to the South Korean military, or even to the United States military.
These “war games,” as he called them, have been going on since the formation of South Korea. They’re crucial to the American defense system, but Trump’s reason for stopping them is that they’re too expensive to conduct.
Now, the American and South Korean militaries don’t really know how to proceed. They haven’t gotten official word to cancel their next exercise, so technically it’s still on the books. However, Trump has already announced his decision in a public setting and presumably directly to Kim himself.
Kim Jong-Un hates these exercises and protests them regularly. Russia also hates them. What could have been an amazing bargaining tool, Trump conceded to Kim for seemingly nothing in return.
“I went all the way to Singapore and all I got was this lousy empty promise from a dictator.”
So…Optics or Progress?
There’s no right or wrong answer to this question. Honestly, it’s probably a little of both.
While everything about this summit was unconventional, some argue that this may be the only way to pierce North Korea – from the top down. When dealing with a guy like Kim, he’s in charge, beginning to end. He sets the terms. It’s possible that it makes sense to start with him in this particular case.
Something I will say, though – it is historic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean as much as the media seems to want it to, considering nothing meaningful was actually accomplished. Perhaps it is progress, the first step towards peace with North Korea. I suppose anything’s possible, though.
Whatever will actually come from all of this, or even what the next step will be is still uncertain. This could get weird, and who knows what will be accomplished or who will walk away with what.
But…it’s a first step. Whether it was a big one, a small one, a backwards one, or a step in the right or wrong direction is a matter of perspective, at this point.