It’s hard to justify any world leader threatening to destroy another country – especially if, in the case of this specific leader, his country’s armed forces actually have the capability to carry out such a threat. But in the case of President Donald Trump and his escalating rhetoric toward North Korea, the criticism from just about every quarter is Pavlovian: Trump said it and therefore it must be unbelievably stupid and downright wrong.
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But is it?
It would be nearly impossible to argue that any item on the Trump administration’s foreign policy agenda has been thought out, with all the pros and cons weighed up, rather than being just a thread of knee-jerk tweets. Trump’s stance toward Pyongyang is likely little more than another of his rants. But for once, he isn’t necessarily wrong.
For the last quarter of a century, U.S. presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama tried to prevent North Korea from going nuclear. They all failed. All three sought to use a combination of diplomacy and sanctions to get the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to give up on its atomic ambitions. They all failed.
Three generations of Kims – beginning with Kim Il Sung, who shortly before his death assured former President Jimmy Carter that North Korea was prepared to give up its nuclear program – have all pursued their grand design. Millions of North Koreans have literally been starved to death, withstanding the sanctions and allowing the resources to be devoted to obtaining nuclear immunity.
There is something quite breathtaking about former officials of those U.S. administrations, along with other Western diplomats who supported the failed policy, now lecturing Trump.
Threatening the absolute dictator of an opaque tyranny armed with nuclear weapons with ultimate destruction is a risky strategy? Well, so were the policies of the last three U.S. administrations that allowed the Kim dynasty to build those weapons. And acquiescing to its continued nuclear power in the name of “containment” is arguably even more dangerous.
Trump is dangerous, but he is still the elected leader of a democratic nation. For all the flaws of the system that allowed him to reach office and all his many failings as president, we should not be comparing him in any way to the hereditary despot of a slave population.
You can believe that Trump is the worst president ever to inhabit the Oval Office – and he almost certainly is – and still understand there is no league whatsoever in which he can be regarded as level to Kim Jong Un. Our justified disdain for Trump shouldn’t mean we nod in agreement when the likes of Kim call him a “dotard.”
At his worst so far, Trump has expressed some sympathy for white supremacists. This is inexcusable for a president of the United States, but Kim the Third has inherited and enhanced a slave-labor system that rivals the very worst of the 20th century. Equating them, much less rooting for Kim, is the equivalent of excusing the worst excesses of Stalinism, Maoism and Nazism.
Trump’s threats may well turn out to be no more than empty bluster. At the very worst, they could bring the Far East to the brink of a terrible war. But to date they have resulted in more serious sanctions by Kim’s Chinese benefactors than old school diplomacy yielded, and there is no proof they are any more dangerous than allowing him to continue reinforcing his nuclear arsenal and blackmailing his neighbors.
Kim and his predecessors got away with mass murder and enslavement because they had no problem sacrificing their own people, realizing early on that their opponents didn’t have the stomach to threaten them with annihilation. They may not be so confident now they’re facing a president with no patience for diplomacy.
South Koreans and Japanese citizens who would have to pay the ultimate price for war in the Korean Peninsula have every right to object to Trump’s brinkmanship. But politicians and pundits in the West who have backed three decades of failed diplomacy and allowed the Kims to go as far as they have should wait and see if Trump’s approach may actually prove more effective.