On North Korea, Simplistic Good Guy/Bad Guy Thinking Has Broken Our BrainsPhoto courtesy of Getty Politics Features North Korea
Let me start off by saying that I don’t expect much to come from the Singapore Summit, in which Donald Trump made “history” by meeting face-to-face with Kim Jong-Un, shaking his hand, and calling him a “beautiful man with a tremendous heart and the world’s best country,” probably. (Note: He didn’t say this, but the real thing, which included phrases like “very special bond,” wasn’t that different.)
The whole idea here is to establish relations which eventually result in the nuclear disarmament of North Korea, but the Kim family has been playing this cat-and-mouse game for decades. They hint at peace, they put nukes on the table, and then they withdraw them and conduct war games that scare the hell out of everyone or shoot a missile over Japan. In the end, though, nothing really happens—they’re not going to give up their only source of power, but they’re also not going to invite their own destruction by daring to use them, and we’re not going to attack them pre-emptively because, as Steve Bannon noted in one of his few moments of lucidity, they’ll torch Seoul and maybe Tokyo too before we can finish the job. (Also? China.)
As for the declaration they signed at the end, it was nothing much. It looked, in fact, like an equally toothless declaration signed in 1993, and the essential trade-off is that America will stop holding war games on the peninsula in exchange for a commitment to denuclearization on North Korea’s part—both of which either side can renege on at a moment’s notice. Also, it’s not even clear that the U.S. is actually stopping its war exercises.
All that said, this sort of meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-Un has a very limited downside. If the situation returns to the status quo, as I suspect it will, there is nothing lost and nothing gained. But if this starts us on the path to peace? Well, then, hurray. If nothing else, surely the precedent of dialogue is a good thing. Somehow, I believe that Trump has bumbled his way into a diplomatic event that is not overtly negative. It may even be positive—probably not, but maybe.
However, if you spent any time among the #RESISTANCE last night, you saw a million tweets like this:
Trump on Kim: “A talented man who loves his country very much. An honor to meet him.”
For the record of history, never before has a U.S. President spoken this way of a dictator accused of crimes against his own people.
— David Jolly (@DavidJollyFL) June 12, 2018
Looking more prescient than ever. Please note that Trump demanded that our democratic neighbor eliminate massive tariffs it doesn’t have, while he demanded that a brutal dictator do … nothing, in exchange for real US concessions https://t.co/rCsfTc5HiL
— Paul Krugman (@paulkrugman) June 12, 2018
Trump and US media are legitimizing a dictator from a totalitarian regime that starved its own people to fund its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Kim gained power by having his half-brother murdered and his own uncle and the uncle’s extended family executed.pic.twitter.com/7aBeruC1Sq
— Leah McElrath (@leahmcelrath) June 12, 2018
Trump said he was honored to shake Kim Jong Un’s hand at the #TrumpKimSummit
Wrong, Mr. President. It is not an honor to shake a murderous dictator’s hand.
It’s an honor to sake the hands of people like Trudeau and Macron (even though it looks like it hurt you a bit).
— Brian Krassenstein (@krassenstein) June 12, 2018
Trump: North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un “loves his country very much.”
Human Rights Watch: North Korea restricts all basic civil & political liberties for its citizens. Kim Jong-un uses “arbitrary arrest,torture in custody,forced labor & executions to maintain fear & control.”
— Jon Cooper (@joncoopertweets) June 12, 2018
Sickened by how Trump doubled-down on how “talented” Kim Jong-un is because he could “run it tough.” “Toughness” in this context means throwing people who speak their mind into gulags, torturing dissidents, widespread rape, enslavement, forced abortion, forced labor & starvation.
— Brian Klaas (@brianklaas) June 12, 2018
A few things here.
1. Yes, the North Korean regime is awful. We could have a long debate about the history that led to the current situation, but suffice it to say that none of it could justify the suppressive actions taken by the Kim family over the years. It would be idiotic to argue otherwise, and as far as I can tell, nobody except actual tankies are even attempting a legitimate defense. (And for what it’s worth, the broader assertion that Trump sucks is also correct, as is the contention that the summit is contradictory to his conduct with Iran.)
2. The idea that Trump is “legitimizing” Kim or his actions is ludicrous and meaningless. Legitimizing how? Making it easier for Kim to commit his atrocities? Fooling any of us into thinking the Kims are good people? Changing anything in any discernible way? Of course not. It’s an accusation without merit. (It’s also extremely aggravating to see people still take Trump’s hyperbolic logorrhea at face value, like each word should be examined for exact meaning as one would study a hieroglyph.)
3. If you follow this logic to its end point, where does it lead? Easy—no American leader should ever negotiate with someone like Kim Jong-Un, we should always treat them like irredeemable enemies, and the dangerous status quo should last forever.
Which leads to an obvious question: How does anything ever change? War? Is that the only answer here? Either we exist in a state of permanent tension or we blow them off the face of the map and probably sacrifice hundreds of thousands of innocent lives in the process?
Anyone with an inkling of diplomatic sense should realize that removing negotiation from the list of acceptable actions, just because we don’t like our negotiating partner, is capital-s Stupid. It’s tantamount to believing that the way to reform North Korea, and to help its starving and benighted masses, is to threaten their leadership until, somehow, it leads to peace.
It also shows one of the core brain deficiencies of the current American center. A certain type of establishment mind, right or left (let’s be honest, there’s very little difference and they’re all going to be in the same political part within a decade), seems to espouse a worldview that divides us into good vs. evil. History, nuance, and gray area are not interesting to them, because if they started to engage with those subtleties, they may have to one take a cold, hard look at America. And not just Trump’s America—Obama’s America, Clinton’s America, etc.
I for one am disgusted and embarrassed to see the US flag flying side by side with the flag of a repressive authoritarian regime and serial human rights violator, as our president happily shakes hands with an unelected leader who routinely throws political opponents in prison pic.twitter.com/ROZPrQo6gL
— qerek qavison (@dwdavison9318) June 12, 2018
That would be hard sledding for people who have, to this point, lived in the warm embrace of generalities, and it would introduce a potentially disruptive cognitive dissonance that might end up—god forbid—freeing their minds from the allure of false dichotomy. That’s a bit of a bear, in all honesty, and so they retreat to their comfortable, symbolic method of thinking. Which is why I feel entirely safe and certain in believing that if Obama had met with Kim Jong-Un, the left-center contingent would have hailed it as a breathtaking step toward unprecedented peace—even if it was just as meaningful, which is to say not meaningful at all, as what Trump accomplished in Singapore.
And just for the record, Obama said before he was president that he’d do the same exact thing that Trump’s doing:
— Shane Ryan (@ShaneRyanHere) June 12, 2018
If you have any doubt that these centrists are prone to a Manichean worldview that relies on symbols, look how many people from the center-left and the never-Trump center-right brigade (who, again, are fundamentally the same people) freaked out about the damn flags:
No single Republican or Trump supporter is EVER allowed to complain about disrespect towards the American flag again… EVER! pic.twitter.com/lFc4C8uZhY
— TO? ?O?E T?AViS (@TopRopeTravis) June 12, 2018
Fox News made sure to feature NK flag in Trump interview…..just wow. pic.twitter.com/Fxvh0nJ650
— Eric Boehlert (@EricBoehlert) June 12, 2018
Imagine the Nazi flag in place of the North Korean flag. Kim is the closest thing to Hitler on the planet today. We put our flag alongside his, and Trump praised him fulsomely. That better reap some dividends. (/2)
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) June 12, 2018
He makes a propaganda video for North Korea, he stops our joint military exercises with South Korea, he puts the North Korean Flag up there right next to ours, and he says Kim Jong Un is a great man who loves his own people.
Uh…Trump is a tough guy?
No wonder Kim is smiling.
— Joe Walsh (@WalshFreedom) June 12, 2018
The American flag is side by side with the North Korean flag as though we are equals.
Donald Trump just legitimized North Korea before they’ve made any assurances to denuclearize. #TrumpKimSummitpic.twitter.com/FDDaqcuow1
— Ryan Knight (@ProudResister) June 12, 2018
Can’t recall ever seeing arrangement of US and NK flags side by side like this. pic.twitter.com/nprugGR3rC
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) June 12, 2018
No matter what you think, history has been made.
The President of the United States of America, standing in front of our flag spooning north Korea’s flag, shook hands with a murderous dictator who has killed his own family members
— andy lassner (@andylassner) June 12, 2018
The two flags, the American and DPRK’s, side by side are a stunning propaganda victory for Kim. https://t.co/olzM0sZ2Eq
— Christina Wilkie (@christinawilkie) June 12, 2018
This is actually deeply embarrassing. Again, a simple question: How does peace happen? How does a lifting of economic sanctions on North Korea to end mass starvation happen? How does denuclearization happen?
It sure as hell doesn’t happen by a collection of short-sighted hysterics scoring cheap points by getting mad at the placement of some flags.
If we’re ever going to progress as a country, we need to transcend the brutally polarized and frankly tribal modes of thinking that demonize or idealize certain people and certain symbols, and let political belief follow in glib procession from there.
Take it from a man called @fart:
if u disapprove of the possibility of peace in korea just bc donald trump is on the clock during it u are a really truly dumb fucker “and thats a fact jack”
— jon hendren (@fart) June 12, 2018
And some who aren’t called @fart:
No it isn’t. That’s ridiculous. It’s what happens when two countries try to make the peace. Nothing less, nothing more. https://t.co/YBrUJExxCK
— Tim Shorrock (@TimothyS) June 12, 2018
The US never brings up human rights in its meetings with Saudi Arabia and Israel either, as they massacre Yemenis and Palestinians, and the media doesn’t care
It’s amazing seeing the corporate media basically campaign against a peace deal with North Koreahttps://t.co/RH1Ih78OLS
— Ben Norton (@BenjaminNorton) June 12, 2018
7. People on the left and right and center who are criticizing this summit on principle need to explain what they would’ve preferred, because six months ago we were on a path to war and this seems a lot better than that.
— qerek qavison (@dwdavison9318) June 12, 2018
And 50 million South Koreans and 25 million North Koreans can know look forward to a true peace. Why does every US critic of this agreement completely forget about KOREANS? It’s their country we’re talking about. We don’t own it. https://t.co/biNQjsQWLy
— Tim Shorrock (@TimothyS) June 12, 2018
on the question of human rights the issue is one of good faith and the remotest consistency of application. The reason why so many—esp outside the US—find the moral grandstanding tedious is these concerns only come up when doing so advances war or continued US military presence
— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) June 12, 2018
It’s unclear what exactly the summit will accomplish, and I’ll repeat that my best guess is “not much.” But to shriek about the optics, and to forestall any chance of peace in Korea because you’re afraid Trump might look good, is the height of hypocrisy—there are real live at stakes here.