Trump has opportunity with kim jon-un in north korea, but caution is warranted – politics 4 patriots gas vs diesel truck


Far be it from me to say whether Donald Trump’s diplomacy on the Korean peninsula entitles him to join Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama among our recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates. But Condoleezza Rice is surely correct to suggest that the Trump administration—including ex-secretary of state Rex Tillerson—deserves credit for the series of events currently playing out on that Cold War battlefront.

Since a 1953 armistice stopped the shooting in the Korean War, the two Koreas have been utterly (and very separately) transformed, but the diplomatic status quo has reigned supreme. If President Trump somehow manages to break that deadlock, perhaps Rigoberta Menchú, or the estate of the late Yasser Arafat, will donate their Nobel medallions to the White House. Still, while results have thus far been encouraging, it is quite possible that, as with most peace prize-worthy achievements, there is less here than meets the eye.

For example, while the dramatic meeting of the two Korean leaders, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, at the 38th parallel made for arresting optics, it was not exactly a Nixon-to-China/Sadat-to-Jerusalem moment. Within the past two decades, two of Moon’s predecessors in Seoul traveled to Pyongyang for talks with Kim’s tyrant-father, Kim Jong-il, and the results were comparatively minimal. There was movement toward the reuniting of some families separated a half-century earlier by conflict, but the so-called June 15 Joint Declaration (2007) was largely a series of nice ideas and good intentions that have gone nowhere. The important meeting will be the one between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.

The danger of summitry, however, is always the discrepancy between reality and make-believe. From the American standpoint, the animating issue here is not North-South reconciliation but North Korea’s accelerating nuclear-weapons program, which has stymied global diplomacy since the 1990s. The world is united in its horror at the prospect of Pyongyang wielding hydrogen bombs, but what to do about it remains a quandary. A nuclear-armed Kim Jong-un is, in its way, unthinkable, but so is an outbreak of conventional warfare on the peninsula.

Trump’s principal achievement, thus far, is to have impressed Pyongyang’s neighboring benefactor, China, thereby isolating North Korea—which is no small matter. But nations on the threshold of nuclear capacity (Iran, for example) are naturally loath to take backward steps. What’s in it for Kim? On the Korean peninsula, at least, nuclear diplomacy has largely been a matter of buying time through ignoring facts, and summits notwithstanding, the North Koreans have no interest in broadening relations with their prosperous, democratic, above all Western-oriented cousins in nearby Seoul.

My suspicion, therefore, is that Kim-Trump diplomacy will yield less than we might hope for—that is, a denuclearized North Korea and “normalization” between Seoul and Pyongyang—but more than the current unsustainable impasse: a halt to testing and weapons production, if we’re fortunate, and an inspection program. By summit standards, that would resemble success. For if any place dramatizes the virtue of patience, and the importance of the United States and its allies honoring global commitments, it’s the Korean peninsula.

Indeed, when people complain about “endless war” in Afghanistan or Iraq, they might wish to recall the events of June 1950, when Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, invaded the South and sent American and South Korean armed forces into retreat.

As it happens, while Mao Zedong, less than a year in power in Beijing, was Kim’s stalwart cheerleader and comrade-in-arms, Joseph Stalin in Moscow was notably unenthusiastic about opening a new Asian front in the burgeoning Cold War. But Kim’s invasion, along with the Berlin Airlift and the invention of NATO, was a pivotal moment in the creation of the new world order and an instructive event in American politics. For it was in Korea that the American resolve to resist Communist expansion met the Truman administration’s postwar contraction of U.S. military strength. That is to say, peace dividends are almost always illusory. To his credit, however, Harry Truman swiftly switched gears and, in a shrewd gesture, enlisted the United Nations Security Council in defending the integrity—and, ultimately, the freedom—of South Korea.

The Korean War, especially after Mao sent Chinese troops across the frontier in late 1950, was an unexpectedly tough and expensive conflict: 33,000-plus Americans were killed in three years of fighting, and one general’s reputation was tarnished (Douglas MacArthur) while another’s was burnished (Matthew Ridgway). And while the stalemate along the 38th parallel was finally broken by the new president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s implicit threat to wield nuclear weapons, Ike’s July 1953 armistice prevented Korea from becoming a domestic calamity like Vietnam.

It was, moreover, the successful template for Cold War policy. For just as American troops remained in Western Europe decades longer than was expected in 1945—and of course still remain in lesser numbers—some 23,000 U.S. troops continue to guarantee the 65-year-old twilight peace on the Korean peninsula. This has been of singular benefit to the inhabitants of South Korea and to our allies in Asia, as well as American credibility and, in abstract terms, the cause of freedom and human dignity. The benefits have outweighed the cost.

Now the challenge is not failure but success. While North Korea is a cloistered Stalinist regime that has never de-Stalinized, its southern neighbor is an affluent, outward-looking, fully functioning democracy. And so long as the Kim family rules in Pyongyang—which is likely to be longer than anyone anticipates—reconciliation between the two Koreas will be symbolic, at best. It may well be that the regime will collapse next month or, like post-Stalinist Russia, devolve into long, slow, despotic decay.

Donald Trump’s unconventional presidency has yielded unexpected results, and the prospect of meeting and talking with Kim Jong-un is an interesting one. It may transpire that there is both more and less to Kim, in which case the nuclear specter may be vanquished or diminished somehow—and full marks to Trump should that come to pass. Still, the greatest danger in statecraft is the triumph of hope over experience.