At any other time, including the beginning of his own term in office, U.S. President Donald Trump’s trailblazing steps into North Korean territory on Sunday would have sparked universal amazement, enthusiasm and hope. The event would be mentioned in the company of such dramatic breakthroughs as Anwar Sadat’s 1977 visit to Jerusalem or Ronald Reagan’s 1985 “Fireside Chat” with Mikhail Gorbachev at the height of the Cold War.
But since it is Trump we’re dealing with — and given his accumulated track record of fruitless, embarrassing and often counterproductive summit meetings with foreign leaders — the reaction in most world capitals is likely to waver between skepticism, derision and deep anxiety.
Trump undoubtedly deserves credit for his unquestionable talents as producer, director and lead actor. The U.S. president’s spectacle in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Sunday proved his ongoing ability to break the rules, take everyone by surprise, grab the limelight, control the agenda and rivet the global community.
If one is to believe Trump and his bestie Kim Jong Un’s claim that their third historic summit was born in a tweet and convened with absolutely no preparation, it would be a gross deviation from accepted principles and widely followed prohibitions of international statesmanship and diplomacy.
Trump might also be acknowledged for preferring, to paraphrase one of Menachem Begin’s famous sayings, the sounds of peace to the drums of war. Before March 2018, when Trump astonished the world by announcing his upcoming Singapore summit with Kim, military tensions between the two countries spiked, sparking fears of an approaching apocalypse in the Korean Peninsula. Since then, Pyongyang has halted its long-range missile tests and, despite the breakdown of talks following the failure of their second summit in Hanoi this February, Trump’s continuing words of love and friendship have preserved an atmosphere of calm — as well as the illusion of progress.
Back on Earth, however, North Korea has done nothing to arrest its nuclear program, freeze research and development of long-range missiles, curtail testing of its shorter-range missiles or diminish its strategic threat on U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, not to mention Alaska and possibly the American West Coast as well.
According to most experts, the chances that Pyongyang will change course are minimal, at best. In their eyes, Trump’s adoring and effusive praise for Kim, which broke his own records for fawning, bestowed legitimacy and respectability on Kim in exchange for absolutely nothing at all. If one of the contestants in his hit reality show “The Apprentice” would submit the same kind of deal, Trump would quickly bellow “You’re fired!” in return.
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Small wonder that Jerusalem is following Trump’s performance with concern and apprehension, praying that he won’t adopt similar tactics in his confrontation with Iran over its own nuclear ambitions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Iran hawks can be thankful, for the time being, that Tehran doesn’t possess the approximately 50 nuclear bombs ascribed to the North Korean arsenal and that it doesn’t control the fifth largest army in the world, which, despite its outdated and even obsolete weaponry, can still wreak havoc and destruction on Seoul, with all the ensuing dangers to world peace and the stability of its economy. If Iran had similar capabilities, Trump would be talking to it in a completely different tone and language.
Israel should also be grateful for the fact that, notwithstanding their repressive regime, the ayatollahs in Tehran oversee a Jeffersonian democracy compared to Kim’s murderous and cruelly oppressive one-man dictatorship. Iranian leaders do not possess Kim’s freedom to twist and turn as radically as he pleases, to embrace today the very same president he described yesterday as a “gangster” and “mentally deranged dotard,” for which he was rewarded with the nickname “Rocket Man” and threats to obliterate his country “with fire and fury.” Even a nation such as Iran, with its unique skills in tough bargaining and advantageous deals, cannot but be amazed and jealous at the sight of Kim’s successful acrobatics.
Contrary to Trump’s impulsive and often logic-defying behavior, which makes diplomats and experts tear their hair out in exasperation, Kim is walking in the footsteps of his grandfather and father before him, who outfoxed far more knowledgeable and experienced U.S. presidents in the past. The notes may change according to circumstance, but the song remains the same: Blustery resistance and threats of annihilation when Pyongyang is threatened, sanctioned or under siege, and ostensible moderation and willingness to compromise when it recognizes weakness and vacillation on the enemy’s side.
The pattern has been repeated countless times ever since the CIA first declared 25 years ago that North Korea is in possession of one or two nuclear bombs: Acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear program, which inflamed tensions with the United States and the West, followed by signs of moderation and even signed agreements to freeze or eliminate its nuclear arsenal — mainly the 1994 Agreed Framework deal and 2007 Denuclearization Action Plan — until the West invariably discovers that Pyongyang hasn’t kept its word and is continuing its nuclear drive unabated. And so on.
Which is how the Kim kinship — grandfather Kim II-sung, followed by father Kim Jong Il and now the son and grandson Kim Jong Un — ran rings around Bill Clinton, possibly the last president who could have destroyed North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure without risking regional or possibly global conflagration; resisted and rebuffed George W. Bush, who believed, like Trump and Netanyahu on Iran, that threats and sanctions would succeed where dialogue and agreements failed; confounded Barack Obama by alternately blowing hot and cold; and accelerated its ballistic missile program before Trump decided that his magnetic personality and unparalleled business acumen will suffice to provide the long-awaited breakthrough.
The world, led by Tokyo and Seoul, has no choice but to smile, endorse Trump’s moves and pray for a miracle — or at least for their survival until he is replaced by another U.S. president. South Korean President Moon Jae-in showed his own improvisational talents standing beside Trump in the DMZ on Sunday, nodding in agreement as the U.S. president instantaneously dubbed his meeting with Kim “legendary." This, despite the fact that Moon received only short notice before the summit convened, was unprepared for Trump’s stroll into enemy territory or Kim’s return visit to Freedom House inside South Korean territory, and was dumbfounded to hear of Kim’s invitation to the White House — a gesture usually reserved for the conclusion of groundbreaking agreements rather than polite smiles and empty promises.
Moon’s adviser, Chung-in Moon, found it difficult to hide his consternation, flatly telling CNN Sunday that North Korea had done absolutely nothing to curb its nuclear prowess. Asked what exactly President Moon bases his optimism on that a deal will be achieved, especially in light of the failure of the two previous Trump-Kim summits, Chung responded with a candor that reflected his frustration: “If we won’t have conviction,” he asked, “what alternatives will we be left with?”
The same is true of the rest of the world: It looks on in bewilderment as a novice, shoot-from-the-hip president — who has a penchant for bragging, shamelessly and in his syntax-challenged vocabulary, about historical achievements that no one but he seems to recognize — runs U.S. foreign policy with all the finesse of a bull in a china shop. But it has no choice but to cheer him on and wish him success.
The dire alternatives — that grow exponentially graver because of the possibility, if not certainty, that Trump’s inflated expectations will inevitably come crashing down on reality — are just too chilling to contemplate.