Analysis

A Dove in Hawk's Clothing? Trump’s Korea Haggling May Make the World Safer, by Accident

The document Trump signed is worthless, but he managed to smash the hypocrisy that's been running the world for decades

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Sentosa Island, in Singapore, June 12, 2018.
Evan Vucci/AP

On the face of it, Tuesday’s summit in Singapore between North Korea and the United States afforded a peek at the negotiating technique that turned the orange-haired author of “Trump: The Art of the Deal” into a serial bankrupt: Meet with a bitter rival. Give him everything he could have possibly hoped to get from the meeting. Give him some more. Throw your closest partners under the bus. In return, accept vague promises. Leave and tell your investors a story laden with childish superlatives about how your tough technique pays off.

That, at least, is how most experts on North Korea read the outcome of the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump was in a rush to hold the meeting, which gave the North Korean tyrant the international recognition and status his father and grandfather had fantasized about. As if that weren’t enough, Trump halted joint military exercises with South Korea, the cornerstone of U.S. policy in Northeast Asia, and reiterated that he’d like to withdraw American forces from South Korea. This decision, which Trump evidently neglected to share with the leaders of South Korea and Japan in his conversations with them ahead of his meeting with Kim, caused shock and anxiety in Seoul and Tokyo.

What did Trump get in exchange for his glorious retreat, that makes the pacifism of the greatest left-wingers look positively hawkish? A murky document devoid of any real undertaking by North Korea, which, experts say, is far inferior in importance to the undertakings former American presidents managed to wrest from their protagonists in Pyongyang.

The problem with that analysis is that it’s based on the point of view of experts, not Trump. If we leave aside the concepts by which the international system has operated since the Cold War began, the historic developments in Singapore look like a positive development. Who knows, maybe peace will come, to Korea and to the world.

The document Trump signed is worthless. But the previous documents lauded by the experts — the ones achieved after countless hours of negotiations by experts led by “rational” American presidents — didn’t manage to stop the North Korean nuclear program.

In Trump’s mind, canceling the joint exercises with South Korea wasn’t giving away something for free. It was giving away something that he wanted to jettison anyway, which Trump made clear when he demonstrated surprising knowledge of the cost of jet fuel burned up in the flights by the American bombers between Guam and the Korean Peninsula. Was it tantamount to stabbing a historic ally in the back? Again, the terminology is wrong: According to Trumpian realpolitik, Japan and South Korea aren’t allies, they’re protectorates that enjoyed American generosity for many decades. They don’t like it? Let them look for their next sponsor in Beijing.

The main thing that Trump’s move achieved, apparently without his ever intending to, was to smash the hypocrisy according to which the world has been run for decades.

It wasn’t the meeting with Trump that gave the mass murderer from Pyongyang international standing. It was the failure of the international community to halt the North Korean nuclear program that created dozens of bombs and a missile program that could, theoretically at least, reach practically every corner of Earth.

And what is that Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that previous U.S. presidents managed to get North Korea to obey? The hypocrisy screams from the very name: non-proliferation, for instance, rather than dismantling or disarmament. This was an agreement in which five nations determined that only they had the right to possess nuclear weapons. Why? Because they were there first and who’s to tell them otherwise.

Since the treaty’s signature in 1968, various countries (India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa, Taiwan, Libya and Iran) have demonstrated that it hardly prevented them from developing nuclear weapons; and it isn’t the reason they decided to forgo their nuclear ambitions, if they did.

Even most experts, including the most jaded, would admit that the bizarre meeting between Trump and Kim has made the danger of nuclear war more distant. And it bears keeping in mind that no agreement against nuclear proliferation, even if achieved after decades of effort, achieved more.

True, the chance that the move this week will lead to Korean nuclear disarmament seems remote. Also true — as the American and North Korean representatives advance in talks, Chinese and Russian investors are likely to hare for Pyongyang, enfeebling the economic pressure on the north. But again, the sanctions imposed on Pyongyang until now, probably the harshest in modern history, didn’t bring an end to its nuclear program. Maybe an improvement in economic conditions and who knows, maybe even more openness by its neighboring countries, could impel North Korea in a positive direction and also somewhat improve the lives of the real victims of the situation: the people of North Korea.

Since Trump is involved, there’s no telling if he’ll suddenly backtrack and send southern Asia reeling toward war because negotiations aren’t progressing at the pace he would like. But since the start of his presidential election campaign in 2016, time and again, Trump has exposed the nakedness of the experts, on a host of issues. Maybe he will surprise again and prove — ironically — that the “leftie” dovishness hidden by Trumpian bellowing is the way to bring peace to Korea.