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