Trump’s speech in Seoul was the best thing he’s done. In his entire life.

Just over nine months into his presidency, Donald Trump is best known for two qualities: doing terrible things, and doing things terribly. Inevitably, he and his party are starting to pay the political price for that. But this is not a blog about Obamacare, The Wall, Richard Spencer, Twitter fights with the grieving parents of dead heroes, or the Russia investigation. There are other blogs for those subjects. This is a blog about North Korea, which leads to my paradox.

During the 13-year history of this blog, I’ve watched president after president demur on Pyongyang’s growing nuclear menace with soothing palliatives, taking the counsel of tenured geniuses who’ve grown in their influence despite being consistently wrong about Pyongyang’s intentions. I’ve watched in frustration as North Korea became the greatest national security crisis of our time, and never quite became the great moral crisis that it rightfully deserves to be. Yet now, however improbably — though it may have something to do with rejecting the counsel of tenured geniuses — I think I just watched Donald Trump become the first American president to articulate a coherent North Korea policy.

In his speech to the Korean National Assembly last night, Trump struck precisely the right tone: unyielding in the defense of our core interests and allies, forceful as he twisted the economic screws on Kim Jong-un, flexible enough to leave him a peaceful exit, strong without being bellicose, and above all, compassionate toward the North Korean people who share our interest in seeing their homeland become peaceful and humane. If you haven’t seen it yet, or if you have and your thoughts on it haven’t quite congealed, then watch it here.

Of course, many who read the title of this post immediately thought, “You set a low bar.” Of course, Trump didn’t write the speech himself. Of course, it would have been a completely different speech if Steve Bannon had written it. And of course, I still have criticisms, including his gratuitous plug for his golf course, and his description of Pyongyang’s terrorism that never quite found the clarity to call it by its legal name.

Since the so-called armistice, there have been hundreds of North Korean attacks on Americans and South Koreans. These attacks have included the capture and torture of the brave American soldiers of the USS Pueblo, repeated assaults on American helicopters, and the 1969 drowning [downing] of a U.S. surveillance plane that killed 31 American servicemen. The regime has made numerous lethal incursions in South Korea, attempted to assassinate senior leaders, attacked South Korean ships, and tortured Otto Warmbier, ultimately leading to that fine young man’s death.

But the speech did much to close the biggest hole in the President’s policy, by speaking clearly of the suffering of the North Korean people. Careful listeners will have heard the President cite the findings of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, the research of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and the gulag memoir of Kang Chol-hwan.

Workers in North Korea labor grueling hours in unbearable conditions for almost no pay. Recently, the entire working population was ordered to work for 70 days straight, or else pay for a day of rest.

Families live in homes without plumbing, and fewer than half have electricity. Parents bribe teachers in hopes of saving their sons and daughters from forced labor. More than a million North Koreans died of famine in the 1990s, and more continue to die of hunger today.

Among children under the age of five, nearly 30 percent of afflicted — and are afflicted by stunted growth due to malnutrition. And yet, in 2012 and 2013, the regime spent an estimated $200 million — or almost half the money that it allocated to improve living standards for its people — to instead build even more monuments, towers, and statues to glorify its dictators.

What remains of the meager harvest of the North Korean economy is distributed according to perceived loyalty to a twisted regime. Far from valuing its people as equal citizens, this cruel dictatorship measures them, scores them, and ranks them based on the most arbitrary indications of their allegiance to the state. Those who score the highest in loyalty may live in the capital city. Those who score the lowest starve. A small infraction by one citizen, such as accidently staining a picture of the tyrant printed in a discarded newspaper, can wreck the social credit rank of his entire family for many decades.

An estimated 100,000 North Koreans suffer in gulags, toiling in forced labor, and enduring torture, starvation, rape, and murder on a constant basis.

In one known instance, a 9-year-old boy was imprisoned for 10 years because his grandfather was accused of treason. In another, a student was beaten in school for forgetting a single detail about the life of Kim Jong-un.

Soldiers have kidnapped foreigners and forced them to work as language tutors for North Korean spies.

This language will have made many of those in the audience — especially those in President Moon’s party — deeply uneasy, because of the power of the words that were its greatest virtue. As I listened, I wondered how North Koreans might react to these words. Try to strip away your own biases about Trump, although I wonder how many of you can. Try to imagine yourself as a student in Pyongyang or a trader in Hoeryong. Some, of course, will think back to Trump’s recent war threats and cling to the narrative that a wolf cannot become a sheep. But in my experience, we underestimate the intelligence and critical thinking skills of North Koreans. To at least some of the North Koreans who hear these words — if they ever do hear them — the compassion of those words could begin to confuse the narrative of America as their enemy.

Other passages might undermine the regime’s narrative that the world is in awe of their emperor, and thus, they must hold him in awe, too. Trump challenged that narrative when he addressed Kim Jong-un directly and declined to reward the perverse incentive of allowing nuclear weapons — which Kim Jong-un would use to threaten our own core interests and liberties, and thus, our own political system — to become a means to secure his own misrule.

I also have come here to this peninsula to deliver a message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship: The weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer. They are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face.

North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather envisioned. It is a hell that no person deserves. Yet, despite every crime you have committed against God and man, you are ready to offer, and we will do that — we will offer a path to a much better future. It begins with an end to the aggression of your regime, a stop to your development of ballistic missiles, and complete, verifiable, and total denuclearization. (Applause.)

A sky-top view of this peninsula shows a nation of dazzling light in the South and a mass of impenetrable darkness in the North. We seek a future of light, prosperity, and peace. But we are only prepared to discuss this brighter path for North Korea if its leaders cease their threats and dismantle their nuclear program.

The sinister regime of North Korea is right about only one thing: The Korean people do have a glorious destiny, but they could not be more wrong about what that destiny looks like. The destiny of the Korean people is not to suffer in the bondage of oppression, but to thrive in the glory of freedom. (Applause.)

I don’t doubt that many in the tenured genius class will be aghast. That may be why this was the speech that Trump’s predecessors ought to have given five, ten, or twenty years ago and didn’t. The challenge with such a polarizing President is to hold onto one’s objectivity and transcend partisanship in the name of patriotism. My view now is just what it was one year ago — that the patriot’s duty is to criticize unjust policies and help the President make and execute good ones. The people can only choose one president at a time. In the case of North Korea, too much is at stake, and there is too little time, to wait to help the next president do it better.

Trump’s most inflexible supporters view all criticism of him as betrayal, while his most inflexible critics view all commendation of him as buying a first-class ticket on the express train to Vichy. Maybe my work helps me to separate my political views from my views on specific policies. I’ve voted against every American president of my adult life at least once, but gone on to serve them all loyally as a civil servant or an Army officer. In both capacities, my oath was to the Constitution alone. Of course, the Constitution gives the President great power, and our job is to help the President carry out his constitutional prerogatives, whether we agree with his policies or not. We do that, and then we go home and log into Facebook or WordPress to represent and express our own views as private citizens, just like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Bret Harte all did in the last century.

Now, if only he can execute the policy he has articulated. As I write, his meeting with Xi Jinping is testing his commitment to that execution. If he fails, the alternatives are too horrible to contemplate.

~    ~   ~

Update: North Korea’s reaction was about what you’d expect.


  1. You might want to rephrase this part (last paragraph): “if only he can execute it the policy he as articulated”


  2. Donald Trump continues to handle the NK crisis different than any other recent U.S. presidents and that in itself has to be commended.

    The second that Moon Jae In came in to power, Kim Jong Shit smelled blood in his favor. Donald is making sure Kim Jong Fat smells his crap more than anything else out of fear that his days are surely numbered…

    The fat man calling DT a “lunatic old man” sure sounds like a scared dog barking just a little bit louder.


  3. Yes, Trump gave a great speech. However, some people in the audience – the national parliament of South Korea – seemed to disagree:

    I noticed apparent boredom

    and empty seats

    I recognize that most of the legislators heard a real-time translation. I understand that for a large enough gathering, someone(s) simply can’t make it. I totally understand that President Trump spoke before the South Korean parliament – not the North Korean parliament. I hope I misread what I saw, but I got the sense that a heavy plurality of the legislature simply disagreed with the truth that President Trump expressed. It seemed to me that they did not want to deal with the ideas President Trump presented. IIRC, he got no standing ovations, not a whole lot of smiles, and the speech included at least a few perfect lines for this. Lots of grim faces. It’s like – folks, this is YOUR nation; President Trump and the U.S. are totally on your side, and you don’t seem to “get” it. I hope I read this wrong, and if I did, I’d like someone to please correct me . . .


  4. I admittedly had to read his speech, as I can’t handle listening to him speak, but there’s no denying his rhetoric on North Korea is the one silver lining I’ve found in the cloud of his presidential performance.

    Now here’s hoping he doesn’t fumble as he comes my way into China.


  5. A thought experiment: Imagine, if you will, you’re watching a film. It opens to a happy suburban neighborhood street. Most houses on this street are fairly similar, headed by the main household. The community all enjoys great benefits, incredible abundance, security, leisure. They all seem very busy with their working lives, but relatively ok with it.

    There’s one house though you learn is cordoned off from the neighborhood. It seems evil. Has some weapons pointed out at the neighborhood but that pales in comparison to the amount of weaponry and surveillance pointed at it. It is completely surrounded with military, so much so that its militant aspirations seems ridiculous. On top of that, the home is in shambles. the family is recluse. and they never communicate with the neighborhood.

    The main character soon makes friends with a neighbor that explains the house as being evil, revealing the family to be twisted bunch that have done terrible things to their neighbors
    and is thus sanctioned.

    To fast forward, the main character, being the level headed retired Detective that he is, uncovers a dark truth. The head house holds directly created this house by splitting it in half and turning it on itself. You come to find that yes, they have acted out, but that pails in comparison to what the major households have done in creating their precious suburb…you find fields of dead bodies and destruction behind their happy homes as far as the eye can see. mass destruction against people who were almost completely defenseless. The film ends with a conflicted Detective.

    Be that detective.


  6. Imagine, if you will, you’re watching a film. It opens to a young North Korean child no older than 7 years old. It is a cold wintry day but he is wearing no shoes, and clothes which are old, thin and two sizes two big. Even though he is 7 years old, he is small, frail, thin and dirty from being abandoned by everybody that he has met in his entire life.

    As he walks to a small but busy outside market, all he can think about is how dizzy he is from being so hungry for the past several days. As he focuses on an outside table full of several men eating rice and kimchi soup, he knows he must compete with other kids just like him jockeying for the best spot near the table for any food that is either left on the table or dropped to the ground by the sloppy diners.

    As he squats to pick 6 or 7 pieces of rice mixed with black mud and melting ice, he asks himself “what have I done to deserve this pain and misery?”.