In the United States’ mercurial relationship with North Korea, the two possibilities that get attention are full nuclear disarmament, our primary goal, and a nuclear attack on South Korea, Japan, or even our nation, our primary fear. Most experts, though, say neither outcome is likely, because Kim Jong Un believes his nation would be highly vulnerable if he gave up the weapons, and completely undone if he attacked the United States or its allies.
So what does Sunday’s encounter between Kim and President Donald Trump, sparked by a Twitter invitation, signify? There’s no downside tactically, and the upside of lessened hostility and a path toward normalization of North Korea is worth pursuing. And while the urge to rail against Trump for legitimizing a savage dictator with a bubbly event at the Demilitarized Zone is reasonable, it’s also ineffective.
Trump’s reaction to the idea that he shouldn’t be too positive toward despots is puzzlement.
Sunday’s meeting and its tone, and Trump’s behavior at the G-20 summit in Japan, need to be seen as parts of a larger game of global positioning in which Trump’s hostility to some dictators and his gentility toward others is clear in its motives, yet deeply worrisome.
North Korea has launched cyberattacks against the United States. North Korean missile companies are operating in Iran. And North Korea is helping to arm Syria.
So why does Trump demonize the pact that gave Iran economic opportunities in return for stifling its nuclear-arms program while he seeks much the same deal from North Korea? Because opposing Iran unrelentingly pleases Trump’s favorite allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Befriending North Korea puts China and its dictator, Xi Jinping, a true rival of the United States, off balance, and pleases Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, who also courts North Korea to keep China on its heels.
It’s clear that this support for despots undermines the United States as a legitimate moral leader. But it’s also clear that the Russian, Saudi Arabian and North Korean buddies Trump courts are no better than the Iranian and Chinese ones he opposes to please them.