This week the eyes of the world were again focused on a meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea, as President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un convened in Vietnam. This summit is the second such meeting of the two leaders since Donald Trump assumed office in 2017. Both meetings have been described as groundbreaking and momentous by both supporters and opponents of Trump’s foreign policy agenda. While the meetings themselves were rightly described as unique, the results produced by those meetings were not.
The first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore in June 2018 was truly groundbreaking. It was the first time a sitting US president met with a leader from the communist regime. Trump spoke of a special bond with Kim, the then 34-year-old who assumed the title of Supreme Leader of North Korea upon the death of his father Kim Jong-il in 2011. Kim proclaimed it was time to “leave the past behind” and move ahead to a new phase in relations between the two countries. The summit produced a vague agreement between the two leaders to work toward peace and move toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Since the summit, however, there has been little evidence that North Korea has followed through with its pledges to denuclearize and decrease its production of ballistic missiles, quite the opposite in fact. This disingenuous behavior on the part of North Korea following the first summit was the root of all skepticism concerning the second summit which ended abruptly Thursday with no agreement.
While many are hopeful about the current back and forth between Trump and Kim, the history of US-North Korea relations gives little cause for hope.
It is important to remember that this summit is not occurring in a vacuum. Trump is the thirteenth US president tasked with managing the 69-year-old war with North Korea, which was brought to a ceasefire by the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953. The agreement effectively militarized and calcified the border between North and South Korea, and created an environment of tension that would govern the peninsula over the next seven decades. US presence in Asia has been largely defined by the conflict, and the maintenance of a sizable US military presence in South Korea has been seen as key to check the regional ambitions of North Korea and its chief sponsor, the People’s Republic of China.
As early as 1985, efforts were being made to prevent North Korea from joining the rank of nuclear nations. In December of that year, North Korea acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). It would take a further six years for the communist regime to agree to the terms of the treaty, which called for monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 1994, former President Jimmy Carter succeeded in negotiating a deal with Kim Il-sung, in which Kim pledged to freeze its nuclear production.
Following the death of Kim Il-sung in July 1994, the United States began an almost yearly back and forth cycle with his successors, which continues to this day. Summits would produce agreements which would be followed by the discovery of North Korea’s violation of said agreements, which would be followed by the imposition of sanctions by the United States meant to isolate the communist regime, which would be followed by yet another summit, etc.
In the interim, North Korea used the promises of action and the hopes of peace as a cover to quietly advance its production of nuclear weapons as well as its development of long-range and intermediate range ballistic missiles. These advancements were confirmed by a series of secretive nuclear tests, the fifth of which occurred in 2016. All the while, the Kim dynasty consolidated its hold on the impoverished nation to the utter detriment of its people.
Beyond the flagrant militarism of the Kim regime, the greatest indictment levied against the would-be world leader concerns the moral reprobation on full display in his mistreatment of those he leads. Of the 25 million souls trapped in that embargoed nation, 18 million experience limited access to food and are considered “food insecure” by UNICEF. Sixty thousand children face starvation. Only 1 percent of the population owns a car, which is probably good since only 3 percent of the roads in the country are paved and movement is largely restricted. There is no free media, and what media exists feeds the people a steady stream of propaganda lauding the state and bolstering the authority of their “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un.
Its command economy, which is heavily dependent on Chinese imports, has produced an average GDP of around $12-13 billion, roughly the size of the state of Delaware. This economic juggernaut has left half of its population in poverty while subsidizing a bloated and disproportionate military apparatus and enriching its leader.
Kim’s control over the nation is absolute, and he has gone to great lengths to ensure that all challenges to his rule are rendered mute. It is estimated that, since he gained power in 2011, he has ordered some 340 executions, including that of his half-brother Kim Jong-nam. A frequent rational given for those exterminated by the Kim regime is that the offenders’ greatest offense was “showing disrespect to Kim.”
The Challenge of Peace
There is a reason that none of Trump’s 12 predecessors would grant an audience to these “supreme leaders” of North Korea. To stand toe-to-toe with these dictators and to bring them to the table always risked bolstering their leadership globally and strengthening their position domestically. Legitimizing these leaders could only result in the further oppression of their people and the further destabilization of the region, which would be counterproductive to the aims of the international community. This jury of 12 presidents was content with denouncing in explicit terms the immorality of the Kim dynasty and to isolate the regime accordingly. The past diplomatic isolation of North Korea’s leaders might have been enacted merely out of principle and habit, but no previous president was willing to sacrifice America’s moral standing to break that habit. Until now.
Kim Jong-un is a despot par-excellence, but does this mean that Donald Trump is wrong to engage in new methods to pursue peace with North Korea? Many come to the president’s defense, saying that while his policy is disruptive, the process was in need of disruption. Thirty years of isolated back and forth have produced little to no success in retarding North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. So in response, Trump has replaced the cold shoulder with the open embrace.
Despite some initial juvenile social media barbs in the opening months of his presidency, Donald Trump has gone out of his way to extend Kim a courtesy and the benefit of the doubt that he has denied to some of the United States’ closest allies in the past. He has expressed sympathy for Kim’s predicament of ascending to power at such a young age; he has called him a friend and a fine man and a good leader. He boasts of a good and close relationship with the tyrant whose closest brush with democracy is the internal poll inside his own mind when deciding who in his regime to execute next. While Trump’s apparent obsequiousness is cause for much bemoaning among critics, his defenders attribute a method behind the madness.
Many have attempted to draw parallels between Trump’s brazen personal diplomacy and US diplomacy with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They will say, “Ronald Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev, so why can’t Trump meet with Kim?” While correlations do exist, a key difference must be denoted: Reagan possessed none of the moral or rhetorical ambiguity that Trump displays. When the Soviets shot down a South Korean airliner in 1983, killing 269 people, no one heard or would have expected to hear Ronald Reagan call then Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov “my friend.” Reagan used rhetoric to clearly set the debate; it was clear which side the US represented in the struggle. While peace with that particular “evil empire” was the goal, parity was not. Every despot seeks legitimacy to ease their conscience with the praise of men. Denying them that comfort is the first step to introducing them to the justice they deserve. Reagan believed that for peace to be legitimate, the terms of that peace would be set by the side that valued freedom.
All of us who love freedom want peace, and none of us desires war. But the harsh reality is that often the peace we want can only be achieved by the war we do not. Trump is to be commended for his pursuit of peace amidst the intransigent skepticism of the foreign policy establishment. However, as we saw in the Cold War and know from history, peace unavoidably comes at a cost. The goal of any leader is to ensure this peace does not come at the cost of his or her character. The goal is not just to help your nation save face, but to save its soul as well.
Drew Griffin is managing editor of Providence.
Photo Credit: President Donald J. Trump and Kim Jong-un, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, meet for a social dinner on Wednesday, February 27, 2019, at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam, for their second summit meeting. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.