There was a time, only half a year ago, when President Donald Trump seemed clear eyed about North Korea. He invited a survivor of one of its gulags who had walked thousands of miles to freedom to be an honored guest at this year’s State of the Union. Behind the petty insults he once hurled at Kim Jong-un, Trump also spoke eloquently about the Kim regime’s true, horrific nature.
Well, it turns out all of that talk of Koreans yearning for freedom was prattle. Trump is in deal-making mode. So he lavishes his new dictator friend with the kind of puff and hyperbole one expects at an award show.
This was a theme of the summit in Singapore this week. From the choreographed handshake to show two leaders on equal footing to Trump’s musings about beachfront condos on the North Korean coast, the American president went out of his way to make one of the world’s most grotesque tyrants feel like a statesman.
Now it should be said that some diplomatic pageantry in the service of a comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible agreement to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons would be worth it. But it’s telling that the vague agreement reached at the summit does not include any language on verification, or even a timetable for next steps. For now, Trump is asking the world to take his word on it.
And while Trump deserves some credit for getting Kim to halt his nuclear and missile tests now for more than seven months, it’s still inexplicable why he would go out of his way to lie about his negotiating partner. If there really is a deal to be done, then it won’t hinge on Trump’s flattery. It will hinge on Kim’s own calculation that his regime will not survive if he keeps his nuclear weapons.
Trump can’t help himself though. With that in mind, two moments of presidential obsequity stand out. The first was his response to a question from ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. Asked what kinds of security guarantees he offered Kim, Trump demurred. He then offered the following tangent: “His country does love him. His people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor. They’re gonna put it together, and I think they’re going to end up with a very strong country, and a country which has people — that they’re so hard working, so industrious.”
Then there was Trump’s bizarre suggestion in his press conference that his negotiations with Kim would actually benefit the 100,000 Koreans living in Kim’s prison camps. When asked about whether his sweet words about the dictator counted as a betrayal of those doomed gulag dwellers, Trump was incredulous.
“No, I think I’ve helped them because I think things will change,” he said. “There is nothing I can say, all I can do is do what I can do. We have to stop the nuclearization and that’s a very important thing.”
Trump’s verbiage here is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s 2015 Nowruz message to the Iranian people. Back then Obama said, “My message to you, the people of Iran, is that together we have to speak up for the future that we seek.” Obama knew, when he said this, that the Iranian people had no say in the future of their country’s nuclear program. The only person who did was the supreme leader to whom Obama wrote a series of respectful letters.
The same dynamic is at play with Trump and North Korea. Trump must know that most North Koreans despise their dictator. He has said as much. In an address to the national assembly in South Korea in November, the president observed: “The horror of life in North Korea is so complete that citizens pay bribes to government officials to have themselves exported abroad as slaves.”
What’s more, Trump is deluding himself if he thinks a nuclear deal with Kim will benefit Koreans rotting in his gulags. The opposite is true. Any agreement will offer Kim’s regime security in exchange for nuclear concessions. A nuclear deal would by definition keep the wardens of those gulags in power.
In this respect, Trump’s negotiations with North Korea, despite the historic face-to-face meeting, are conventional. It’s the same formula that American presidents have tried since Bill Clinton: your nukes for your regime. The big difference this time is that Trump is offering Kim lavish legitimacy before Kim has even agreed on a timetable to disarm.Eli Lake
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. -- Ed.(Bloomberg)