We will see a better relationship between the U.S. and the Korean Peninsula with Obama, who sternly criticizes Bush and who would meet the leader of Chosun without pre-conditions, than with the “Bush clone” and scarecrow of the neocons McCain.
– from the pro-Pyongyang Chosun Sinbo, June 9, 2008 (original Korean here)
Like most of you, I slept uneasily on the night after the New Hampshire primary results came in. When sleep finally did come, dreamed I was tending an empty bar in Aspen during the off-season, as Wolf Blitzer droned in the background about the Democratic front-runner’s historic negative likability ratings. I contemplated closing the bar early when two vaguely familiar-looking men staggered in, sharing the swaggering, manic laugh of newly divorced junk bond traders on a weekend bender in Cartagena.
“Garcon, a bottle of Johnny Walker Red!”
In my dream, I brought a bottle and two glasses of ice. Squinting through the dim light, I realized that my patrons were none other than James Carville and Sidney Blumenthal. They were engrossed in somber, brooding discussions of their least-favorite subject (their hapless candidate) and more raucous discussions of their favorite subject (Republicans). Over Wolf’s sonorous rambling, I heard the unmistakable sound of a wager offered — that a plurality of GOP primary voters was so blinded by its rage at Barack Obama that it would vote for his nearest temperamental opposite, no matter how comically stupid, racist, and neurotic he might be to the majority of the U.S. electorate. To this plurality of a minority, it wouldn’t matter how substantively ignorant he was, or how glaringly unfit he was to control the FBI, the NSA, the FCC, judicial appointments, and the nuclear codes.
“There are two sides to every Bell Curve.”
“In fact, I know just the guy. So do you. Think about it.”
They shared a knowing look, peals of loud laughter, and (if I’m not mistaken) a line of coke. “Hell, even she couldn’t lose to him!” Hands were shaken. Unspeakable services were promised to the winner. I shuddered as I thought that here were the sort of men who kept few promises, except for promises like these.
And then, I awoke. I’d fallen asleep with the TV on and awakened from one nightmare into another.
Much overanalysis of Donald Trump this year has described him as a new species of political savant, but there’s nothing new about his species. Vast swaths of Africa, Latin America, and the ‘stans are governed by men just like him. I incline to the view that Trump’s success, so far, is mostly a function of the civic nihilism of our news media and the idiocy of the ovine masses who bleat at his trough. He is to politics what Lord Arthur Scoresby is to tactics. Until now, he has been lucky enough to be the firmest stool in the fecal smorgasbord that is this year’s ballot. If, five months from now, the polls in my state dictate that it is my solemn duty to vote for Mrs. Clinton to preserve our republican form of government, I’ll close my eyes and think of America, and of how much garden-variety, devil-I-know incompetence and mendacity it has already survived, without interruption, since January of 1993.
[Good morning, Ma’am. I’ve come to check myself in and entrust myself to your care.]
By now, you may be wondering if I’m coming to a point about North Korea. You may already have forgotten that two weeks and several Donald Trump outrages ago, Trump casually sharted out that he’d be willing to talk to Kim Jong-un. He has since reaffirmed that he’d “negotiate” with Kim. This drew immediate and heavy criticism from conservatives with views as diverse as Mark Levin, Gordon Chang, Michael Green and Adam Kinzinger. Even the pro-Trump Breitbart didn’t quite seem to know how to react.
How shocked we should really be depends on some unknowns. Of course Trump would negotiate with Kim Jong-un. So did Hillary Clinton, through her diplomats. So did Barack Obama. George W. Bush and (of course) Bill Clinton talked to Kim Jong-il. And at the right time, so would I. That right time is at least two years in the future, after sanctions, subversion, and information operations force Kim (or, more likely, a junta of generals) to breach North Korea’s isolation and accept fundamental transparency, disarmament, and reform as the price of survival. (The sanctions, however, would stay firmly in place until he performed. The conditions for suspending and lifting them are now written into statute.)
From there, however, the questions proliferate. Does Trump’s offer mean he won’t ask China to assassinate Kim Jong-un (as if), or that he’d defer that part of the discussion for later? Does he still think Kim Jong-un is a “madman” who is “sick enough to use” a nuke? Would he still conspire with China to “close down” North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, or ask China to make Kim “disappear”? Would these be direct talks or would he use, you know, diplomats for that? Would Trump go to Pyongyang? (He later said he wouldn’t, thus preempting the question of whether he’d stay.) Does he have any sense of what he’d hope to achieve through talks, how his objectives would fit into a coherent policy, or how that would advance our national interests? And most importantly:
Personally, I wouldn’t waste too much time on these questions. Any serious effort to derive a coherent policy from Trump’s election-year statements is to confuse aromatherapy with flatulence. Nothing Trump says is coherent. Everything he says is meant to please the half of the mob that’s content to overlook the completely contradictory thing he said ten minutes before to please the other half of the mob. He’s a dark cloud that pisses and throws thunder wherever the wind blows him. By the end of July, he’ll be threatening to bomb Pyongyang. If a promise to talk to Kim Jong-il was meaningless when the guarded, thoughtful, and feckless Barack Obama made it, surely one of Trump’s witless ejaculations means even less.
But would Trump at least try to negotiate? Probably, and it is worrying that Trump seems as easy to manipulate as he is to enrage. In fact, I can almost imagine that first Trump-Kim negotiation going a little like this:
[From there, things would only go downhill.]
The caliber of mind that enrolls in the Trump University School of Foreign Relations doesn’t survive in a place like Pyongyang. North Korea’s ambassador to Switzerland initially dismissed Trump’s offer “a gesture for campaign purposes,” “propaganda,” and “nonsense,” while wisely allowing that “[i]t is up to the decision of my supreme leader.” Since then, however, the China-based, North Korean controlled “news” site DPRK Today has warmed to Trump, or pretended to. But if the West has nothing to teach North Korea about profiteering, then surely Donald Trump has nothing to teach North Korea about how to run a confidence game.
North Korea has backed presumptive U.S. Republican nominee Donald Trump, with a propaganda website praising him as “a prescient presidential candidate” who can liberate Americans living under daily fear of nuclear attack by the North.
A column carried on Tuesday by DPRK Today, one of the reclusive and dynastic state’s mouthpieces, described Trump as a “wise politician” and the right choice for U.S. voters in the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election. [Reuters, Jack Kim]
Just when I thought Trump couldn’t do worse than the endorsements of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan, he has. But although news sites are crowing that North Korea has endorsed or offered its support to Trump, or that its state media has endorsed or “backed” him, it would be more precise to say that a pro-North Korean website based in China, which obeys Pyongyang’s writ and probably expresses its views, has praised him and criticized his opponent, and also, Trump seems to be totally fine with that. And that is bad enough.
DPRK Today called Trump a “wise” politician, saying that if the United States withdraws its troops from the Korean Peninsula, the two Koreas will seek peace and reconciliation. [….]
“There are not a few positive aspects about what Trump said,” the propaganda website said. “If the U.S. does not interfere in affairs on the peninsula, the two Koreas will reconcile and cooperate.” [….]
“The candidate whom Americans should select is not (Democratic candidate) Hillary Clinton who seeks to apply the Iran-model to the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, but Trump who hopes for direct talks with us,” the North’s outlet said. [Yonhap]
In these dreary times, you take your joy where you find it. The most delightful absurdity in this year of depressing absurdities has been watching Hillary Clinton — the wife of the man who presided over Agreed Framework I — tag Donald Trump as Kim Jong-un’s candidate and “unfit for office.”
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Thursday accused her Republican rival Donald Trump of “praising” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, saying it is one of a series of statements that show the real-estate tycoon is not qualified to be president. Clinton made the remark in an interview with CNN, calling the North’s leader “a despotic dictator.”
“Whether it’s attacking Great Britain, praising the leader of North Korea, a despotic dictator who has nuclear weapons, whether it is saying, ‘Pull out of NATO,’ let other countries have nuclear weapons, the kinds of positions he is stating and the consequences of those positions, and even the consequences of his statements, are not just offensive to people, they are potentially dangerous,” Clinton said.
She did not elaborate on Trump’s praise of the North’s Kim. But she was believed to be referring to remarks Trump made in January. Even though Trump at the time described Kim a “total nut job” and a “madman playing around with the nukes,” he also said it was “amazing” for the young leader to keep control of the country. [Yonhap]
It consoles me some to think that when Clinton wins the presidency this fall, she’ll have done so by positioning herself as tough on Kim Jong-un. I’d love to believe that she would be, and hey, it’s just possible. It isn’t her partisan affiliation that makes me skeptical. Democrats in Congress voted overwhelmingly to support tough new sanctions against North Korea. A realignment of Democrats to stronger views will be important if Trump’s nomination puts Democrats in control of the White House, the Senate, and maybe even the House.
But while tough rhetoric will complicate Clinton’s path to Agreed Framework III, it won’t bar it, either. Only Congress can do that. As tempted as I am by the Clinton Accommodation Syndrome that has understandably afflicted some Trump rejectionists, let’s be realistic enough to temper our hopes with an examination of the historical record. Mrs. Clinton, as I’ve pointed out before, has an impeccable record for making “safe,” consensus-backed, and catastrophically terrible decisions. The axiom that politicians will always disappoint you surely goes double when the politician is a Clinton.
But if there is no God (or if there is, and He hates us) and Trump does win, no one is likely to be more disappointed than Kim Jong-un and the electorally insignificant number of alt-right fans they both have in common. Why? First, the percentage of Americans who are masochistic enough to meet Kim Jong-un’s demands is too insignificant to be useful to Trump. As with David Duke, every vote Kim Jong-un delivers costs Trump five or six others. Second, that small percentage is split between perhaps three percent of Americans on the far right, and another ten percent on the far left, who would are no more likely to vote for Trump than I am. Americans consistently rate North Korea as among their least-liked countries. Last year, it rated 8 percent favorable, below Russia, China, and Iran. And by my reckoning, if you asked that 8 percent why, an absolute majority would say it’s because they like their Hyundais.
Most importantly, talks with Kim Jong-un won’t get Trump the only thing he cares about — the adoration of the mobs. Trump’s mob appeal is all about his projection of dominance. His supporters are angry, weak, insecure men who feel cheated by life. They roar when Trump calls other people “losers,” because they’re so overjoyed that for once, the speaker isn’t talking about them. The obsession (see “cuck”) some of them have with the idea that their economic and genetic betters are secretly seeding the wombs of their wives — or their imagined wives — surely has some basis in their darkest inadequacies. Trump makes them feel strong and respected. Attaching themselves to him makes them feel like winners.
And that’s what makes North Korea such bad politics for Trump. Any deal Kim Jong-un would give him would make him look like the one thing his supporters won’t tolerate: a loser. Weak. Kim Jong-un may want Trump to lift sanctions, but he will still want nukes, and he still needs conflict with America to justify his misrule. Without America as his enemy, Kim Jong-un is just the guy who inherited the browner, shittier Korea you can’t see from space at night. He still won’t coexist with an America that feels at all free to produce films, TV shows, op-eds, laws, scholarly reports, or conferences that offend him. And as much as isolationism polls well here in the abstract, Americans are quick to demand action — and often, overreaction — when they feel provoked. That’s especially true of Americans for whom the politics of simple, neat, and wrong have the most appeal.
Kim Jong-un can’t afford to look weak in the eyes of his inadequate and insecure subjects for the same reason that Trump can’t afford to look weak in the eyes of his supporters. In that sense, each is a political mirror image of the other. That sets them on a collision course.
So in the end, Pyongyang’s hopes for a Trump presidency will end at least as badly as the hopes it once expressed for an Obama presidency. In the end, not even Obama, the most restrained American President since Jimmy Carter, could resist the political pressure to hold North Korea accountable for its outrages. Support for his North Korea non-policy finally collapsed after Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test, with stunning swiftness and bipartisan unanimity. If elected, Trump would inherit a Congress where he’s an embarrassment to his own party and anathema to the other, which means that he’d have nothing to offer or bargain with. Independently of Congress, Trump’s murine instincts or impulses would drive him toward conflict with a pathologically belligerent North Korea. Does anyone think this is Kim Jong-un’s last nuclear or missile test? Or that Trump would then ignore the same angry mobs who’d hoisted him onto their shoulders?
That’s why a Trump-Kim axis couldn’t last. That’s why I’m less worried that Trump would give the store away to North Korea than I am that he’d invade it.
[Not that these possibilities are mutually exclusive.]
Donald Trump’s North Korea policy is the least of my worries about him. If we elect Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, we’ve got much bigger problems than North Korea.
~ ~ ~
Update: But I’ll give Clinton’s people credit for this much — they’re saying the right things.
Sharply increasing pressure on North Korea would be the only way to get the communist regime to authentic negotiations over its nuclear program, a top adviser to Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying.
Jake Sullivan, head of the Clinton campaign’s foreign policy team, made the remark during an Asia Society discussion in New York earlier this week, stressing that North Korea will be a top priority for the next president and Clinton will deal with the problem in a similar way she dealt with Iran’s nuclear program.
“This is a paramount security challenge of the United States. It will have to be right at the top of the agenda for the next president to deal with,” Sullivan was quoted as saying by the Bloomberg View. “It’s hard for me to underscore how important it is that we place urgency behind this.”
Sullivan, considered the No. 1 candidate for national security adviser under a Clinton presidency, also said that the only way to get North Korea to negotiate in good faith about its nuclear program will be to drastically increase pressure on the already heavily sanctioned regime, according to the report.
That’s what happened with Iran, he said.
“Those negotiations were set up by a comprehensive, highly tailored, highly resourced effort that involved basically every significant economy in the world getting together and putting real pressure on that regime in a concentrated, sustained way,” Sullivan said. [Yonhap]
Which means that my disappointment will be that much deeper when they sign Agreed Framework III.