On Tuesday I reported on the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. Reported. As in, gave you the facts as they played out. On Wednesday, Bob Lang gave me a gift in this editorial cartoon that allows me to tell you how I really feel about that meeting.
First, it was historic. Period. The simple fact that a sitting U.S. president broke bread with a member of the Kim regime had never happened — not in the 70 plus years that the Kim family has run North Korea.
Second, it is still extremely difficult to tell if this was the beginning of meaningful moves toward normalization or just a really expensive and widely broadcast public relations stunt. Kim is back in Pyongyang relishing an apparent win that his father could never have imagined and playing it up to his people as his coming out party on a global scale. Whether or not he is also making concrete plans to genuinely dismantle his nuclear program, fielding phone calls from his masters in Beijing, or laughing proudly at how he has played both ends against the middle? That is still up in the air.
Third, nobody on this planet except for Kim knows what Kim is going to do next.
I am pleased with this opening salvo, despite the lackluster, imprecise and vague language in the joint document that was signed. I am pleased that for now the conversation has shifted to a peace that might be — rather than talk of bloodying each other’s proverbial noses.
I am far less pleased with the casual way in which the President threw out talk of ending military exercises with our ally, South Korea. The Pentagon and U.S. Forces Korea seemed to be on their heels as well, releasing statements saying they would continue with the status quo until otherwise ordered to change course. If America holds North Korea to an aggressive timeline and sees them begin to make real, verifiable moves towards complete denuclearization — and sidelining joint exercises is the reversible price we need to pay in the short run — I can see that as a viable option. Anything shy of that is a non-starter for me. I completely draw the line at even discussing removal of U.S. troops from the peninsula. That is the win that China is waiting for and one we cannot allow if we hope to keep Beijing in check. The Chinese have already made entirely too much progress in expanding their influence.
Finally, although I understand many people’s disappointment that more progress was not made towards checking North Korea’s gross record on human rights or—more precisely—their concentration camps, I believe there is room for that in the follow-on negotiations. As long as Kim still has a nuclear arsenal, making requests in the arena of human rights may need to take a slight backseat. We need to defang the tiger before we tell it not to bite. That said, this is not something that can be left on the back burner for long. Conditions for the average North Korean are more than abysmal — they are horrifying.
The President has taken a beating from most of the typical Trump hating wing of America. They’ve called the meeting weak and his treatment of the human rights issues as weaker. At the risk of now making a “whataboutism”, Iran is also a violator of human rights and a state sponsor of terrorism and yet we talked to them, signed an agreement with them and handed them the cash necessary to ignore any of our wishes on those subjects. Talking to nasty people is a necessary evil of world politics. Perhaps Trump should be careful how much he shows deference to Kim publicly, but for now, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s made it this far and doing anything other than giving him that benefit would be like judging a seven-course meal on the placement of the water glasses and the breadbasket.
I will always call Trump out when he needs to be called out, but I am also more than happy to give credit where credit is due. We are just in the first inning of this game so let’s see where things stand at the 7th inning stretch before we make a total judgment call, shall we? I am in this until the final out is played.
You can either crush a bully or you can talk to them — pretending they aren’t there doesn’t make the problem go away. On Tuesday we began talking to North Korea in ways we have not tried in the past instead of continuing to ratchet up the potential for a fight. For now, I will take that and keep a skeptical and cautious eye on the horizon.