President Donald Trump seems to think that he’s off to pick up North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear bombs. The problem is that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said nothing of the sort. Kim thinks Trump is offering to recognize North Korea as a nuclear power. What could possibly go wrong at their upcoming meeting?
A visit between the two countries’ heads of state has been a North Korean goal for decades. It would be the ultimate symbol of recognition and, crucially for North Korea, legitimacy. In the waning months of his presidency, Bill Clinton seriously considered traveling to Pyongyang to put the finishing touches on a deal to limit North Korea’s missile programs. It didn’t work out.
Clinton of course did eventually visit North Korea in 2009, though it was to win the release of two journalists being held hostage by the regime. Footage from that trip, interestingly enough, was repurposed for the final installment of a curious series of propaganda films made by North Korea under the title “The Country I Saw.” According to the film’s narrative, Clinton traveled to North Korea because the U.S. respected North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. Produced at the end of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s life, “The Country I Saw” was an early indication of how North Korean propaganda would embrace the bomb as a symbol of power and legitimacy.
So when Trump agreed to a summit, he unwittingly cast himself in what may well be another installment of the propaganda series, one in which North Korea’s testing of both thermonuclear weapons and missiles that can strike the U.S. has compelled an American president to come to Kim Jong Un and recognize North Korea as a nuclear-armed power.
Trump may mock Kim as “Little Rocket Man,” but he has volunteered to give him a happy ending. Chuson Film Studios, the outfit behind “The Country I Saw,” must be blocking out scenes as we speak. And yet, North Korea has not offered to abandon its nuclear weapons — nor does it seem likely to do so. The whole process of how this visit has come about is so strange that it raises questions about whether it will really happen at all.
When Chosun Film Studios casts this drama, it is going to need a leading man to play Chung Eui-Yong, South Korea’s national security advisor. Chung led a delegation to the North to arrange a summit between the two Koreas, a series of meetings that ended in a dinner with Kim Jong Un and members of his family. According to Chung, Kim made a few polite references to denuclearization. But there was no offer to eliminate anything, just an offer to postpone missile and nuclear tests for a bit. There is no official statement, just Chung’s version of events. He wouldn’t be the first diplomat to improvise a few lines.
Chung returned to Seoul, offered a positive readout of his meetings in North Korea, then traveled to Washington to do the same. Once he got to the White House, according to press reports, Trump crashed the briefing, invited Chung to the Oval Office and boom!, we have a meeting. But throughout this whole drama, the North Koreans have been silent save for one email sent to The Washington Post that confirmed the invitation but said nothing about denuclearization. North Korea’s state media has said nothing. So, what is happening?
North Korea wants a summit, that’s for sure. But Trump’s staff appears uninformed or unwilling to break it to the president that the North Koreans have sought a visit from a sitting president of the U.S. since the Clinton administration. Nor does the staff seem to have told the president that North Korea has given no indication that it is prepared to abandon its nuclear and missile programs. This strikes me as rather dangerous. After all, what happens when Trump figures that out?
Some conservatives are worried that Trump will recognize North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. They believe that an authoritarian North Korea will beguile Trump just as it did his erstwhile apprentice, American basketball player Dennis Rodman. They fear that Trump will be so overjoyed by the site of tens of thousands of North Koreans in a stadium holding placards that make up a picture of his face that he will, on the spot, simply recognize North Korea as a nuclear power with every right to its half of the Korean peninsula.
That wouldn’t be so bad. I have long argued that a nuclear-armed North Korea is a fact of life that we should accept, at least privately. That is the best outcome, however clumsily Trump does it. The U.S. needs to come to terms with a nuclear-armed North Korea, just as it did with China. The goal is that North Korea would then reform itself, just as China has. Of course, as we have seen in China, reform and opening has limits. But on the whole, the world would be far safer with this outcome.
What if that’s not how Trump reacts? What if Trump, having deluded himself into thinking he’s going to pick up Kim Jong Un’s bombs, suddenly decides that he’s been double-crossed? He could use the summit outcome to discredit diplomacy and open the pathway toward war. We have already seen U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham threaten Kim that if he were to “try to play him … it will be the end of you — and your regime.” John Bolton, the architect of the collapse of the 1994 nuclear agreement with North Korea, has said the visit will fail, show that diplomacy is hopeless and allow us to move to using military might. And the president himself has warned of the “ominous alternative” if his outreach should fail.
So why are so many people excited about such an unpredictable situation? Probably because we are all collectively terrified of where the situation was headed a few months ago and of what Trump might do if things sour again. In the meantime, South Koreans are working hard to flatter Trump, saying it is his pressure, not Kim’s weapons, that have brought about a possible summit. The White House staff seems unwilling to contradict them. Everyone is managing Trump, even as he becomes increasingly detached from the reality of the situation, tweeting that “Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization.”
The most relevant film might not be North Korean propaganda at all, but perhaps “Sunset Boulevard” — Trump as Norma Desmond, the aging actor taking refuge in fantasy to escape a tragic reality she can’t accept. Either way, he’s ready for his close-up.