Analysis

Trump Is as Ignorant About North Korea as He Is About the Jews

In Warsaw speech, U.S. president touts clash of civilizations between Western Christians and Eastern hordes

President Donald Trump delivers a speech at the Warsaw Uprising Monument in Krasinski Square in Warsaw, July 6, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP

North Korea is a land that time forgot. Not only is the country run like totalitarian communist dictatorships that no longer exist, its very existence is anachronistic. Other countries that were split by the Cold War, including Germany and Vietnam, were reunified long ago. Only East Asia still hosts two leftovers from the volatile 20th century: Taiwan, set up in 1949 by Chinese nationalists following their defeat by Mao Zedong’s communists, and the two Koreas that were established, like Israel, in 1948, before they got embroiled in a long and ugly conflict, which is also dubbed, fittingly, "the Forgotten War."

It’s a war that claimed millions of victims, including 2.5 million civilians, 1.2 million soldiers and close to 34,000 Americans; more Koreans were killed in it than Japanese in World War II.

The Korean War saw the first aerial dogfights between fighter jets, but also atrocious bayonet warfare in World War I-style trenches. It was a campaign in which all sides were guilty of war crimes: the Americans, who incinerated up to a fifth of North Korea’s population with bombs and napalm, as well as Koreans, who almost routinely carried out civilian massacres and just as regularly murdered supposedly protected prisoners of war.

A man watches a program reporting about North Korea's missile launch, Seoul, South Korea, February 12, 2017.
Lee Jin-man/AP

An astonishing 7,800 U.S. soldiers are still considered missing in action, presumably killed deliberately or allowed to die of disease and malnutrition.

>> By sidestepping Jewish victims of Holocaust, Trump helps Polish government rewrite history / Analysis >>

But the Korean War never got the dishonor it deserved. At end of the 1940s, it was overshadowed by the just-finished war of Gog and Magog against the Nazis, In the ’50s it was pushed aside by a world eager to forget and move on, and in the ’60s, against the backdrop of the controversial war in Vietnam, it was suddenly recast from a Cold War clash between superpowers to an anti-colonialist uprising against U.S. imperialism.

For many Americans, the most memorable event of the war was President Truman’s dismissal of war hero Douglas MacArthur, who wanted to expand the war to defeat China and even the Soviet Union. After he fired the popular soldier, Truman’s approval ratings dropped to 22 percent, a record that even President Donald Trump will find hard to break.

The Korean War is certainly distant from the world’s thoughts these days, even though its outcome is once against threatening its safety.

Most people accept the situation in the Korean Peninsula as a given and don’t devote too much thought to the link between breaking news and long-forgotten historical events.

This shouldn’t surprise Israelis: Many people around the world can no longer identify the influence of the Holocaust on Israeli policy, never mind the lingering effect of the War of Independence or the Nakba or the influx of immigrants or the Entebbe operation on the Israeli psyche. Things that you can’t see from here can be acutely visible from way over there, and vice versa.

Thus, most people in the West fail to realize the historic justification for Pyongyang’s propaganda efforts to convince North Koreans that Trump is just another racist American warmonger; or the background for Korean animosity toward Japan, which lorded over the peninsula for half a century, subjugating Korean men, pimping out its women and trying to erase its national identity; or the depth of the emotional connection between China and North Korea, which started even before Beijing sent a million volunteers to prevent United Nations forces led by the United States from overrunning the North in 1950.

Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s mythological founder and grandfather of current Chairman Kim Jong Un, was a member of the Chinese Communist Party, helped it fight both the Japanese and Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists and sent reinforcements to assist Mao to take over China after Pyongyang’s independence.

China may have grown tired in recent years of its neighbor’s crazy behavior and belligerent efforts to achieve military nuclear capability. But that doesn’t mean it is ready to do Trump’s dirty work and turn against its benefactor, as the U.S. president and his advisers apparently believed.

No president is expected to be knowledgeable and up to date about national security and foreign affairs before taking office. The only recent exception to the rule was George Bush Sr., who was a congressman, ambassador to China and the UN, director of the CIA and vice president for eight years before he came to the White House. But former governors Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush certainly had a lot to learn, as did Barack Obama, despite his personal biography and his interest in foreign affairs during his four years as an Illinois senator.

But the difference between all of them and Trump, discounting the reasonable possibility that he is simply not as smart as they were, is that they knew they had to learn a lot, fast, and that they had to rely on competent and knowledgeable experts and advisers to fill the gaps.

Trump, on the other hand, appears to despise briefings, hates to read material, finds it hard to concentrate and thinks he knows everything. He appointed a competent national security team, but tends to ignore their advice.

Trump, one shouldn’t forget, is also the first and hopefully last president to declare war on his own intelligence services, to describe them as Nazis, to accuse them of fabrications and to besmirch them even on trips abroad, as he did on Thursday in Warsaw.

Trump has never had stable policy positions, neither as a celebrity pundit nor a presidential candidate, nor even in the 24 weeks he’s been in office. He hated Saudi Arabia before embracing it; was cold then warm then cool again on China; refrained from endorsing NATO principles until he had to; and didn’t have anything bad to say about Russian President Vladimir Putin until he suddenly lashed out at him in Warsaw for destabilizing the world, presumably as a tactical gambit before the two leaders meet on Friday.

Trump’s war against the media, which gets more vulgar by the week, as well as his hem and haw about Russia, are all a function of his overarching wish to escape the allegations of Russian interference in his election, which delegitimize his presidency.

Nonetheless, in his speech in Warsaw Thursday, Trump seemed to present a coherent worldview, albeit one dictated by his adviser Steve Bannon, as well as the tainted Sebastian Gorka.

It was a message that was bound to be embraced by Poland’s conservative and nationalist government, as well as similar-minded rulers in Eastern Europe. It contained the word “West” a dozen times and “God” another 10, and it espoused a narrative of a Western Christian clash of civilizations with radical Islam, the successor to the Nazis themselves. It was a speech of “Christian values” as Gorka touted it, “historic” and “amazing” all at once.

One assumes it was no coincidence that Trump decided to come to Poland before heading off to the G20 Summit in Hamburg, and that his motivation was more than just sucking up to Polish voters in the Midwest or basking in the adulation of Polish farmers bussed into Warsaw to cheer him.

Trump knows, or shall we assume that at least some of his advisers know, of Poland’s strained relations with the European Union over its refusal to accept Muslim refugees and its promotion of the Three Seas Forum, which includes 12 former Eastern bloc countries that are less liberal and less tolerant than their Western neighbors, but more nationalistic, more religious and more anti-Muslim, like Trump. And that the visit would be seen as a poke in the eye to those hoity-toity Western European leaders who can’t stand Trump.

In fact, were it not for their historical baggage of Russian domination and fear of its expansionist tendencies, Putin could fit in nicely with Trump and his new Christian civilization friends. 

It is against this backdrop that one should view Trump’s decision not to follow in his predecessors’ footsteps and to refrain from visiting the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Monument, sending his Jewish daughter Ivanka to pay respects in his stead. The same is true of his Warsaw speech, in which he lauded Polish bravery without mentioning the country’s historic hatred of Jews or the active participation of many Poles in the Holocaust itself. 

That certainly serves the ongoing Polish campaign to whitewash its anti-Semitic history. But it is also part of a disturbing White House pattern, which started in the repeated anti-Semitic incidents that dogged Trump’s campaign and continued in his bizarre refusal to include the Jews in his statement for International Holocaust Day, his decision to cut the budget of the Holocaust Museum in Washington and terminate the envoy for anti-Semitism at the State Department, his description of his visit to Yad Vashem as “amazing” and, now, with his helping the Poles forget their past.

Trump, or at least his advisers, draws a clear line between Israel, which they adore, and Jews, who get on their nerves. It was Gorka, accused of ties to Hungarian groups with anti-Semitic backgrounds, who described Jewish protests against the Holocaust Day statement as “asinine.” As "Kosher Sex" rabbi, Sheldon Adelson acolyte and perennial Trump apologist Shmuley Boteach wrote on Thursday, he really should have gone to the Ghetto Memorial but hey, he just loves Israel.

Trump, at least, enjoys some presumption of innocence, in the sense that he is devoid of knowledge, curiosity or willingness to learn. There’s no doubt that no one in the White House was even vaguely aware that in the same Krasinski Square in which Trump addressed the Polish people, a musical merry-go-round was set up in April 1943 so that Polish children could frolic as their parents watched Jews die and the ghetto burn. That’s not as significant as the question of whether Trump has the faintest idea of how to avoid a new catastrophe in Korea – a country that, in the eyes of its people, has already gone through one holocaust in its troubled past.