It is now more than a week since the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, and still Americans have not come to terms with precisely what happened that fateful day. Let me put this plainly: Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un just took the most daring and potentially consequential diplomatic stride of our century. This nation’s resolute refusal to mark such an achievement, evident as soon as the summit concluded, is two things: It is pitiful and it is very worrisome, points to which I will return.
Setting in motion a settlement process with North Korea was far more difficult than the Obama administration’s corresponding success with Iran five years ago. The crisis in Northeast Asia has been etched in trans–Pacific relations for nearly 70 years; it provides the enduring logic of the U.S. military presence in the western Pacific. Equally, while the policy cliques and the press have done a thorough job dehumanizing Iranians, that effort hardly compares with the yellow-peril propaganda sustaining accepted images of the North Korean leadership: They are monsters, animals, mystical cultists, merciless murderers of their own population.
President Trump is no stranger to this kind of racist caricature. But for various reasons — his ego, recognition of an opportunity, a reading of history that is accurate if unsophisticated — he seized the moment when it arrived. One may not like Trump for any number of reasons, but his opening to North Korea is to be fully credited. Those who refuse are guilty of allowing contempt to supersede the chance for peace in the Cold War’s last zone of confrontation — a transgression the equal of any one assigns to Trump.
“It was not easy to get here,” Kim said before negotiating the brief document that emerged from the Singapore summit. “The past worked as fetters on our limbs, and the old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles on our way forward. But we overcame all of them, and we are here today.” He later added this: “We had an historic meeting and decided to leave the past behind. There will be challenges ahead, but we will work with Trump.”
There is something diabolic in these remarks, American press reports uniformly suggest, but I have yet to figure out what this might be.
President Trump after signing the communiqué: “We’re very proud of what took place today. I think our whole relationship with North Korea and the Korean Peninsula is going to be a very much different situation than it has in the past.”
Direly misjudged, we are given to understand.
The Kim–Trump communiqué came to fewer than 400 words. In it, the North Korean leader confirmed what he had on offer prior to the summit — a “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” In exchange, Trump promised to provide security guarantees and to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea so long as negotiations prove fruitful. The former is an obvious necessity; Trump called the latter unnecessarily provocative as the two sides “join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime.” Talks to develop a comprehensive agreement, which both leaders acknowledged will be complex, are to commence “at the earliest possible date.”
What language would one like to see emerge from a preliminary, statement-of-principle meeting of this historic magnitude? What would one want the two heads of state to say, best outcome? Would that differ much from what we have? We should all consider these questions.
Now put your answers against the prevalent reaction to the summit among American political leaders and the media: Trump was reckless, Kim took him to the cleaners, Trump gave away the store and got nothing for it, and so on.
In the distance between the two we find the measure of the pitiful, worrisome nation noted above — trapped in nostalgia, narcissism, exceptionalism, an addiction to “threat” and the ever-present danger of conflict. In this aspect the Singapore summit confronts us with questions that extend far beyond the Korea crisis. Chief among them, these: Does our condition amount to a totality from which there is no exit? Is no change of course possible? Are we fated to blindness as the 21st century proceeds?
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As soon as Trump announced in March that he would summit with the North Korean leader, I wondered in print what the policy cliques, the think-tank set, the Democratic mainstream, the compulsively anti–Trump liberal press, and assorted others self-identified as progressives would do if the Dealmaker turns out to be the Peacemaker. How awkward would this be? Would these constituencies dare stand against a chance to overcome seven decades of bitter hostility and create a new order at the other end of the Pacific?
We have our answer now — our disgraceful answer.
Naturally, I have read or heard of no one this past week who has come out four-square against a settlement with North Korea. That would be indefensible. All has instead been text and subtext. You have to listen to the language beneath the spoken or written word to understand that the above-noted constituencies are indeed opposed to any change in the status quo in Northeast Asia. They want to maintain hostilities at the 38th parallel and keep the North as isolated as possible as long as possible. They cannot abide any departure from the they-are-monsters imagery. They want the South to remain in an unnaturally militarized state more or less indefinitely. This is the preference. There are reasons for it, and I will note them shortly.
It is remarkable how uniformly text and subtext have been advanced since the summit. Read this stuff for a week straight and you begin to wonder whether American journalists get dressed in the same locker room every morning. “The most remarkable aspect of the joint statement was what it didn’t contain,” Nick Kristof wrote in an opinion piece a couple of days after the summit. The New York Times columnist continued with this:
“There was nothing about North Korea freezing plutonium or uranium programs, nothing about destroying intercontinental ballistic missiles, nothing about allowing inspectors to return to nuclear sites, nothing about North Korea making a full declaration of its nuclear program, nothing about a timetable, nothing about verification, not even any clear pledge to permanently halt testing of nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.”
I like the vehemence and righteous conviction with which Kristof delivers this indictment, I confess. But I single out his commentary only because it is entirely typical of American coverage. Its principal faults are two and run straight across the board. One, most of what Kristof asserts is untrue: Kim’s signature on a “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization” takes care of the entire list other than the missiles question, and if the North denuclearizes no one need worry about missiles. Two, none of what Kristof and the rest of the American press complain was missing is supposed to be in a 394–word statement of intent signed by two heads of state. That is the stuff of the intricate negotiations the document promises. Secretary of State Pompeo, named to lead the American side in these talks, was on an airplane almost immediately to take up this task.
Go back to the autumn of 2013 to understand how preposterously misleading this kind of coverage is. Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s reformist president, traveled to New York for the UN General Assembly that September, and the big question was whether Barack Obama would meet him. It would be an immense breakthrough if he did, opening the way to negotiations covering Iran’s nuclear program. In the event the two did not meet, but Obama telephoned Rouhani as the latter was in a limousine on the way to Kennedy airport. The two had a brief, cordial conversation that amounted to little more than a nod and a “Hello.”
Recall the moment? The Obama-Rouhani telephone call was covered as none other than an immense breakthrough. Next to this, the text-and-subtext problem post-Singapore will be evident. It is difficult to forgive the same press for the rubbish it has served without relent this past week.
Pompeo now takes up the duties John Kerry assumed when, as Obama’s secretary of state, he negotiated with the Iranians. I give Pompeo a good chance of success. Kim is an aspiring modernizer, in my view. In his own way, he wants a settlement with South Korea and the U.S. as much as Rouhani wanted one with Europe and the U.S. when he extended his hand westward in 2013.
One of the odder aspects of the argument advanced by American hawks is that Kim cannot possibly hold to any promise to denuclearize. He would be crazy to do so, runs the reasoning. Think about this. Implicit in this line of logic is the deadly nuclear danger the U.S. poses and the corresponding logic of a North Korean deterrent. The point is overlooked, but we should all be relieved Pyongyang now has one, in my view. Will it now give it up? This is a good question. My answer is a fairly certain yes, providing an agreement accommodates his very real anxieties.
In effect, Kim can surrender his deterrent and still have one, in my read. It is highly likely Xi Jinping has assured Pyongyang, in one or another set of terms, that the North can assume protection under China’s “nuclear umbrella” just as South Korea, Japan, and other East Asian nations shelter under America’s. This is precisely the sort of role China aspires to play as a regional power, do not forget. Also to be noted in this connection: The Sino–North Korean Mutual Aid Treaty has been in effect for nearly six decades and was renewed twice since the two nations signed it. Its current version runs to 2021 and, like the others, pledges common defense in the event of an attack. I do not find it coincidental that the Chinese president reaffirmed this pact shortly before Kim pledged his commitment to peninsular denuclearization.
Kim also appears to be looking for another deterrent, one China has shown to be effective for the past four decades. The U.S. has continued to cast China as a strategic rival since Deng Xiaoping’s makeover of the Chinese economy in the 1980s, there is no doubt of this. But American companies now have more than $250 billion in fixed investments on the mainland, and China has more than half that amount invested in U.S. companies. These are not nations any longer threatening each other with nuclear attack, and Kim can hardly miss the lesson as he contemplates a Dengist modernization project, as he is plainly doing: The interests of capital are powerfully influential as deterrents.
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It is difficult now to say how far Pompeo and those working on the technocratic details will get with North Korea. But it is equally hard to say how far North Korea will get with the U.S. Of all the nations concerned with the Korean crisis, the U.S. harbors the most vigorous opponents of a settlement. There is still resistance to the very basic idea that it is necessary to agree on a phased process rather than a one-sided, all-at-once disarmament. Equally, the list of Washington’s past failures to honor its pledges—notably when it broke the terms of the Agreed Framework signed in 1994 — is not short. North Koreans are familiar with this record, even if most Americans have no idea of it.
But American reaction to the Singapore summit faces us with question more fundamental than peace on the peninsula, compelling as this prospect is. Here I pose three.
One concerns the recrudescence of a variety of nationalism that is Orientalist whenever it arises in the Asian context. Under no circumstance can American troops be removed from South Korea, military officers and think tank dwellers tell us, for we alone are the keepers of order in the western Pacific and must continue to “shape events” — always a laden phrase — in Asia. The sight of the American and North Korean flags next to one another — an ordinary custom at summits and other such occasions — was “disgusting,” it was “gross,” it was “an absolute desecration of our national colors.” A friend present at the summit described gaggles of American reporters shouting at Trump, “Do you consider Kim to be your equal?” This, surely, was the important question to pose.
Two, it is remarkable to note how much of the criticism leveled at Trump for his summitry arises from mainstream Democrats and other liberals. Many of the same people who once criticized “Make America Great Again!” as a terrible idea, it turns out, think American greatness is to be defended against all suggestions it is anything other. Never mind the hypocrisy to be detected in the past week’s displays of liberal imperialism — nothing new there. The point to grasp is that there are few voices of influence left to oppose America’s insistence on assertive hegemony. This has been increasingly evident since the 2001 tragedies, in my view, and it marks out our era from earlier decades.
Just before the summit, Ro Khanna and 14 other House Democrats sent Trump a letter encouraging his diplomatic démarche and his recognition that “incremental progress” is the only kind feasible. The gesture was excellent but managed to make the opposite point, too: These are isolated voices with very little volume at their disposal. The heavy-hitters — Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, and five other Senate Democrats — sent a letter of their own in which they made demands for in-the-front North Korean concessions that read straight out of the Pentagon’s most hawkish factions.
This leads to a final point. We have to watch the proceedings on Korea carefully now and understand them as a test case. It will tell us a lot about ourselves and our present circumstance. Fundamentally at issue is American primacy, the Korean Peninsula being a kind of ground zero at the other end of the Pacific in this respect. I keep going back to Stanley Hoffman’s phrase: It is primacy or world order, the late Harvard scholar asserted after the defeat in Vietnam, and the U.S. will eventually have to choose between the two.
Eventually is now. And the military-industrial-national-