Jim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-In

In Korea, “Tough Talk” Seems to Translate Well

So apparently the Korean War is over.

In what is likely to be a momentous event in East Asian history, North Korean President Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met face to face at the DMZ and shook hands, pledging to put the past behind them in the name of peace. While we don’t yet know how this story will end–any number of factors could derail the recent bout of goodwill–we nevertheless seem to be witnessing a diplomatic coup of some kind.

Pundits will debate what role, if any, Donald Trump played in this drama. Supporters will no doubt give him all the credit; detractors will give him none. Trump has certainly taken heat for his aggressive posturing toward President Kim on Twitter. Back in August of 2017 and then again in January 2018, Trump sparked fears of World War III when he tweet-promised Kim “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” A second tweet followed, offering a taunting reminder about the “bigger & more powerful” nuclear button sitting on his own desk.

Media and political elites were appalled, calling Trump’s verbal aggression “highly stupid,” “petulant,” and liable to “literally end human civilization.” Yet here we are watching as the two Koreas make moves toward peace.

Can good diplomacy be so undiplomatic? What is the lesson here?

First, Washington elites don’t always understand how the world works. The State Department works hard to advance American interests abroad and usually does a fine job. But cocktail party rules are different from street rules, and much of the world still operates on the latter. Dealing with people in the street requires a different mindset, a different set of skills, a different savvy. No doubt many inside the Beltway understand this, but many others do not; and conventional wisdom often militates in the opposite direction.

Second, gangsters respond to strength. The reason is simple: Gangsters rise to power through strength, maintain their power through strength, and evaluate their rivals purely in terms of strength. Even language is interpreted on a spectrum of strength and weakness. Demonstrated strength makes the gangster back down; demonstrated weakness invites him to attack. And to a gangster, weakness is anything that isn’t strength.

Third, and consequently, good strength is the best way to counter bad strength. Some policymakers and pundits seem to believe that the best way to deal with rogue regimes is to extend a hand, accommodate their barbarity, and meekly invite them to join the civilized world. Sometimes that strategy works. But just as often, and probably more often, it encourages more aggression. Gangsters need to understand that somebody else is tougher than them and not afraid to tussle.

Like it or not, we all live in the world that America built. That world is safer when America is both strong and perceived to be strong, and sometimes that means talking tough to bad guys.

Many Americans will find this uncomfortable, and maybe Christians most of all. We should condone presidential bullying now? How could any of this comport with the gospel?

Political leaders should work hard to promote civil dialogue inside the civitas, and, where possible, beyond. These leaders are not just bureaucrats, they are role models. But the world is a neighborhood with no police force, and some of our international neighbors are unsavory folks who need to be stopped before they kill innocent people. Bad behavior cannot be rewarded. Chaos will ensue, and the weak and innocent will bear the worst of it.

So how to stop them? In the realm of government, a realm ordained by God for the protection of human life and freedom, all options should be on the table. Aggressive speech falls somewhere between friendly diplomacy and all-out war, and in most cases offers the cheapest and most efficient tool for the job.

Friendly diplomacy should remain the overriding norm in our intercourse among nations and use of force the rare exception. Aggressive speech should also be used sparingly. But in cases where such speech may be deployed effectively without catastrophic risk of escalation, it should be considered a legitimate and proportionate tool in the toolbox.

We Christians know the imperfections of the world. We know that sin abounds in the absence of order. We also recognize the power of speech, the ability of words to shape reality. As men and women of peace, we are willing to do whatever we can to forestall the possibility of conflict.

The caveats here are many–too many to include here. But it only stands to reason that we should support talking tough when doing so increases the prospects, however oddly, of averting war.

What’s happening on the Korean peninsula seems to suggest tough talk sometimes works.

Robert Nicholson is the executive director of The Philos Project and co-publisher of Providence.

Photo Credit: Presidents Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in reach across the DMZ (detail, screen capture, NOVA 24TV).

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