Is it fair to call this reaction “cheers”? “Starstruck hoots,” maybe? “Woooos of a vague yet distinctly approving nature”?
— Sarah Blake (@sarahblakemedia) June 11, 2018
Who’s doing the cheering/hooting/woooooing? Could be dopey hotel guests, could be (gulp) media, could be ringers placed by Kim himself to make sure that he’s greeted warmly on Singapore soil. (That wouldn’t be the first time a politician had placed actors in an audience to build excitement for him.) This is a guy who brought his own toilet so that his turds couldn’t be scrutinized. He cares about his image. A lot.
Two administration officials told NBC this morning that Trump won’t confront Kim in their meeting tonight about North Korea’s human-rights record. One winces at the president of the United States giving this Stalinist goon a pass on that, but look at it from Trump’s perspective: What would it accomplish? Their time together is short. Nuclear weapons are the priority. Nothing Trump says is apt to get the NorKs to change their behavior domestically; if that happens, it’ll happen much later in the liberalization process. Besides, given his very public affinity for strongmen like Putin, Trump is a poor salesman for the value of human rights. The North Koreans do their homework. Even if he launched into a pitch about it they’d know it was low priority for him.
It would also contradict the true purpose of the summit. This isn’t really about denuclearization, Peter Beinart correctly notes, it’s about deescalation. Denuclearization is the next step if Trump and Kim can take this first one together. There’s precedent here of a sort:
In pursuing peace with North Korea, Trump has the chance to be like Ronald Reagan: not the unyielding, warlike Reagan of Republican myth, but the real Reagan. The man who, in his second term, confounded both establishment centrists and his right-wing base by focusing not on the details of arms control but on fundamentally changing America’s relationship with the USSR…
Trump’s lack of focus on the details of denuclearization may be a good thing. Like Reagan, he seems to sense that the nuclear technicalities matter less than the political relationship. In this sense, he’s following the lead of South Korean President Moon, whose country is most at risk from North Korea. Moon recognizes that whether or not a summit leads to North Korea’s rapid—or even ultimate—denuclearization, it can bring a warming of relations that will, in and of itself, decrease the chances of war. As with Able Archer in the 1980s, it is North Korean missile tests and joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that pose the greatest danger of accidental war. Just limiting these would make Northeast Asia, and the world, a lot safer.
Opening North Korea up economically can only make things better, Beinart argues. If it cements Kim’s hold on power, that’s bad but still an improvement over the status quo. A more prosperous North should mean a better quality of life for North Koreans and will encourage Kim to behave more diplomatically, knowing that he risks losing his new gravy train if he doesn’t. If instead it destabilizes Kim’s hold on power, well, great — although the idea of North Korea armed to the teeth with nukes and suddenly experiencing a leadership vacuum isn’t without its anxieties. Whatever the outcome, the fact remains that the previous path leads inevitably to war, either initiated by the west to forcibly disarm Kim or initiated by the North at a moment of its choosing, whereas the new diplomatic path leads … somewhere, maybe to the same destination or maybe not. What’s the argument for sticking with path one instead of trying path two? The only one I can think of is that if North Korea’s destruction is in the cards, better that it happen before they have a reliable ICBM that can reach the U.S. Preemptive war in that scenario, though, means North Korea flattened and maybe South Korea and Japan as well. That’s some price to pay without even exploring the new path.
That’s also why it doesn’t much bother me that Kim’s milking the summit for propaganda, including the woooooing at his arrival. There’s nowhere left for him to go either. If he notches the propaganda win and goes back to test-firing ICBMs, war will come. If he notches the propaganda win and plays ball, fine. That’s essentially the bargain here between the two sides, propaganda for conciliation. It’s hard for me to believe that the regime’s hold on power 60+ years into the Kim dynasty depends upon a photo op with Trump, and even if it did, revisit what I said about the anxieties of a suddenly Kim-less North. Regime change might mean a better life for North Korea, but how much would you bet? Handing Kim a propaganda victory bothers us, I think, not because it does a ton for him but because it wounds our own very justified sense of moral superiority to him and his degenerate government. But at this point, given the enormous cost of war and the lack of other alternatives, it’s a minor concession.