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I had planned this big dramatic intro where I would go over all of the juicy details about the most recent U.S.-North Korea summit in Vietnam. I postponed this episode for a month just so that I could include the outcome of that meeting. And then… nothing happened.
But, I guess it makes my job a little easier. I was planning on having to do a ton of research about all of the deals that were made. Well, bad for world peace, but good for me! So let’s just dive right into that tiny peninsula that packs a punch and the “little rocket man” who may or may not end the world… Today we’re talking North Korea.
Who are the Kims? Why do they have nukes? And how artful have our deals been in the past? I’m Emily Glankler; this is Anti-Social Studies; settle in and let’s get some historical context…
Act 1: Keeping Up with the Kims
OK. Next time you’re looking at a map of the world, check out China. It totally looks like a chicken. It’s in profile, looking to the right toward Japan. Tibet and the desert are its tail feathers; Manchuria is its head and the Korean Peninsula is its beak. I promise – you won’t be able to unsee it.
Because of its geographic position between China, Russia and Japan, the Korean peninsula has always been influenced by larger powers in East Asia. Going back to the Silla Dynasty that existed until around 900 CE, they were closely associated with the nearby Sui and Tang dynasties in China, adopting a similar government structure and Confucian ethics. But Korea was independent until the Japanese annexed the peninsula in 1910. They were ruled by the Japanese until the end of World War Two and this time period was characterized by a mixed legacy.
On the one hand, Korea was ruled by the Japanese military and dissent was ruthlessly crushed, especially until a nationwide protest eased some restrictions in 1919. But, it could be argued that Korea greatly modernized under Japanese rule. If you remember from season 1, we’re talking about Japan after the Meiji Restoration that emphasized universal education, technological advancement, and economic growth. Many of those impacted Korea, as well, as cities and commerce grew and mass media like radio and movies began to unify the people in a new way.
Many of these developments took a backseat in the 1930s as Japan undertook a war with China and turned back to harsh military rule to protect its land in Korea. Koreans were forced to work in factories to support the Japanese war effort, and were even forced into combat. This was also the time when tens of thousands of young Korean women were drafted as “Comfort Women”, sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. This is still a disputed part of Japanese-Korean history. Just in the last few years, a statue in remembrance of these “Comfort Women” was erected directly opposite the Japanese embassy in Seoul. The stone woman stares directly at the symbol of the Japanese government in Korea today. The Japanese have protested this and other statues that have been inspired by this dark time in their history. In general, acknowledging the brutal history of the Japanese military in Asia during WWII has been a major issue between the Japanese government and many other powers, like China and Korea, for a long time.
But, after the Japanese lost WWII the Allied Powers took control of the territories they had occupied. Neither side willing to give up precious territory in Asia, the Soviets occupied the northern part of the peninsula while the US occupied the southern half. I’m sure this will end well, said no one. Similar to what happened in Germany, Truman and Stalin couldn’t come to an agreement about the future of the country and so they decided to create two different governments, promising elections in the future. Yeah, sure.
Before elections could occur, the northern communist government invaded the south, beginning the Korean War. This is an interesting story for another day: basically, the US sent soldiers to “contain” the communist threat and we did. We contained the communist threat to the northern half of the peninsula – after a few years of fighting, nothing had really changed and the division at the 38th parallel that was created by the Soviets and the US became the demilitarized zone – or DMZ – between North Korea and South Korea. Technically, the Korean War never ended because neither side has agreed to a peace treaty in the 65 years since the ceasefire – so that’s fun!
From then on, North Korea took a drastically different path than its brothers and sisters to the south and it’s pretty clear which one has worked out better, unless you’re the Kim family, I guess. South Korea has thrived under its democratic and capitalist model while the North Koreans are suffering under a totalitarian dictatorship that is arguably the most restrictive in the world. Also in the running is Eritrea in East Africa. However, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, North Korea enjoyed a higher standard of living than the South throughout the 1960s, making its founder – Kim Il Sung – still incredibly popular in the country today.
So who are the leaders of North Korea? I’m envisioning a reality show called “Keeping up with the Kims” where they laugh about detention centers and marvel at their haircuts – instead of a bowl cut, it’s like a box cut? North Korea has been ruled by the Kim family since its beginning, so who are they?
Kim Il Sung
Kim Il Sung was born into a poor family of devout Presbyterians who participated in the resistance of the Japanese occupation. This obviously influenced their son, who founded a resistance organization called the Down With Imperialism Union when he was just… 14? That can’t be right. But according to Wikipedia and basic math, it is. After dropping out of a military academy, Kim became more interested in underground Marxism. It’s important to note that Marxism, more generally known as communism, is a really common philosophy that appeals to those who have been colonized and oppressed by outside empires. A lot of the philosophy is based on the idea of overthrowing the established powers to create a government entirely run by “the people.” Now, in practice, this doesn’t happen, but during the 20th century communism rose especially in so-called “Third World” nations across Asia, Africa, and Latin America that had a long history of being occupied by bigger powers. Too bad for them that this was at the exact time the US had decided to oppose any communist – or communist-ish – regime in the world. Whoops.
As a young adult, Kim joined the army opposing Japan, during which he caught the eye of the Soviets, who trained him and made him a member of the Red Army during WWII. Somewhere during this time, he changed his name to Kim Il-Sung, which translates to “Kim becomes the sun.” From my experience, any historical figure who compares himself to the sun is going to have some issues with ego. Am I right? The pharaoh, King Louis XIV of France, anyone?
After WWII, the Soviets selected Kim Il Sung to lead the provision government in the north and Stalin equipped the new North Korean military with modern artillery and technology. Cue: the North’s invasion of the south… yada yada yada… the DMZ. Interestingly, it seems that the invasion of the South was entirely Kim’s idea. The Soviets had it under good authority that the US wouldn’t intervene in Korea unless directly provoked, at which point Kim provoked us. Dang it Kim, you had one job!
After the war, Kim embarked on a long period of rebuilding and purging his enemies – you know, typical dictator stuff. He ruled North Korea for 48 years, making him the second longest-serving head of state who isn’t royalty. (First place: Fidel Castro. Gotta give it to them: those communists just don’t die.) Kim Il Sung is still revered in North Korea – his birthday is a national holiday known as the “Day of the Sun.” A few years after his death in 1994 he was named “the eternal ruler of North Korea.” Take that, Julius Caesar – “Dictator for Life”… try “Eternal Ruler” even in death… His rule was characterized by the rise of a cult of personality to rival Mao Zedong or Stalin alongside human rights abuses and imprisonment to rival Mao Zedong or Stalin.
Kim Jong Il
In 1980, Kim Il Sung officially declared his eldest son, Kim Jong Il, as his heir apparent. Kim Jong Il formally took over upon his father’s death in 1994. He is the only surviving child from his first marriage and he ruled North Korea for the next 17 years until his death in 2011.
Side note: Korean names always put the family name at the beginning, which is why they are the “Kim” family. And, as eventual leaders of North Korea, the first names chosen are very symbolic. So Kim Jong Il’s name basically means “the just sun.” And Kim Jong Un’s name translates to “justice and favor.”
Kim Jong Il was actually born in Russia while his father was serving in the Soviet military during World War Two. His original birth name was “Yuri Irsenovich Kim” but he later changed it to the Korean “Kim Jong Il.” He attended school in China to be protected during the Korean War, although he claims he was born and educated in Korea. I guess these changes were all to make him seem like a more legitimate totalitarian dictator? I’m pretty sure that this is not the reason why people don’t like you… it’s less the name/birthplace/school and more the, you know, torture, imprisonment, and brutal executions of your rivals. But anyway.
Kim Jong Il governed North Korea during the brutal decade of the 1990s during which he, apparently, had, “a reputation for being almost comically incompetent in matters of economic management.” This was devastating for North Korea because he assumed leadership just 2 years after the Soviet Union – North Korea’s main ally and trading partner – collapsed. Similar to the Cuban experience, the 1990s were a dark time of economic struggles and famine. It was so bad that the international community has accused his government of committing “crimes against humanity” for their role in the famine of the decade that resulted in an estimated half a million deaths in the country.
Where Kim Jong Il struggled economically, he made up for in diplomacy. By this I mean that he was really good at posing for pictures with world leaders and making international agreements that he had no intention of honoring. We’ll get to those agreements in a second…
While his dad, Kim Il Sung, seemed to be legitimately beloved by many North Koreans, the cult of personality that developed around Kim Jong Il is believed to be much more forced. Although it’s impossible to know for sure, it seems like North Koreans admired Kim Jong Il more out of fear or respect for his late father than because they genuinely respected their new leader. But either way, Kim Jong Il maintained his family’s power over the country as effectively as his father did.
Kim Jong Il was a fascinating character on the world stage for two decades. Over the years he had two wives – both handpicked by his father, three mistresses, and five known children. His eldest son, born to his Korean movie star mistress, was kept a secret from everyone including his father. When Kim Il Sung died he had no idea that he had a 23-year-old illegitimate grandson. Whoa.
Like most communist dictators, he didn’t practice what he preached. Because of a fear of flying, he rode everywhere in an armored train car, reportedly having lobster flown in daily and eaten with silver chopsticks. He owned 17 different mansions or palaces around the country and his foreign bank accounts totalled $4 billion. “Viva la Revolucion,” am I right?
At the same time that he was limiting his own people from all knowledge of the outside world, he boasted a collection of more than 20,000 videotapes and DVDs of popular foreign films and television shows. Apparently his favorite actors were Sean Connery and Elizabeth Taylor and hhe kidnapped a famous South Korean filmmaker and his wife and forced them to build a North Korean film industry. They were in captivity for 8 years until they were able to escape and ask for asylum during a film festival in Vienna. What types of movies do you think he was having them make? “Citizen Kim”? “E.T. the Eternal Tyrant”? “Apocalypse Soon”? (Pause for laughs)
By the early 2000s Kim Jong Il’s health, and possibly his authority, was on the decline. Rumors about his struggles with diabetes and other health issues swirled among those watching the reclusive state. Some analysts went so far as to propose that Kim Jong Il died in 2003 and had since been impersonated by look-alikes to maintain the family’s power. While that’s an awesome theory, what we do know is that his public appearances dropped dramatically in the decade and there was constant speculation by intelligence agencies as to what this might mean for the future of the country.
It appeared that the military was stepping in and assuming more power while Kim Jong Il seemed to be siding with more moderate voices in the government pushing for negotiations with major foreign powers. This may have been caused by the confusion regarding who would succeed Kim Jong Il – possibly the military was looking for an opening to take over directly in a power vacuum. But, at least for now, this didn’t happen. When Kim Jong Il died in 2011 it was reported by North Korean news that during his death a fierce snowstorm “paused” and “the sky glowed red above the sacred Mount Paektu” and the ice on a famous lake also cracked so loud that it seemed to “shake the Heavens and the Earth.” Cool.
When he died, there was uncertainty over who would take over – he left behind three sons, a brother-in-law, and an army general that were all seen as candidates by the public. If there was going to be a coup to end the Kim family dynasty, this was the moment. According to one scholar, “Even the North Korean establishment would not advocate a continuation of the family dynasty at this point.” Which makes it all the more incredible that Kim Jong Il’s youngest son was able to ascend to the throne and consolidate his power… at least for now…
Kim Jong Un
Kim Jong Un was not supposed to be in charge. He was essentially unknown until he was thrust into the spotlight. No one even knows for sure where he grew up or was educated, although it is believed he went to school in Switzerland under a false name. No photos of him were even released in the country until 2010, as Kim Jong Il’s health was fading. The country is so closed off, both to foreigners and also to its own people, that most of our news about Kim Jong Il’s successor came from rumors and observations leaked by his personal chef. One of these observations from the chef stated, “if power is to be handed over then Jong-un is the best for it. He has superb physical gifts, is a big drinker and never admits defeat.” So I guess those are the job requirements to be the dictator of North Korea? Athletic, drinks a lot, and is stubborn? Wait… am I the new dictator of North Korea?!
The fact that Kim Jong Un was barely known before he took power is one of the reasons why observers speculate that Kim Jong Un doesn’t have as much support within the country as his grandfather, and even his father, had. The son who was supposed to take over was Kim Jong Un’s half brother, the son of Kim Jong Il’s first marriage – Kim Jong-nam. But, he fell out of favor in 2001 after he was caught trying to get into Japan with a fake passport to go to Disneyland Tokyo. Damn. This makes me really want to go to Disneyland Tokyo, it must be amazing.
So who is Kim Jong Un? From what little we know, he was a quiet and awkward student who showed an obsession with basketball and computer games. Fellow students said he would spend hours drawing portraits of Michael Jordan in pencil. In 2013 he met Dennis Rodman and, somehow, the two became friends? I still don’t understand this one. He apparently loved the Chicago Bulls, especially when Rodman and Michael Jordan were on the team, and so he invited him to visit. He brought Rodman to his private island which the basketball star described as, “”It’s like Hawaii or Ibiza, but he’s the only one that lives there.” And the weirdest part of this to think about is that since Dennis Rodman is one of the only westerners to meet and get to know Kim Jong Un, and since he was on the Celebrity Apprentice for two seasons, Dennis Rodman is the only person on the planet who knows both men and can provide any clarity on how they could get along in the lead-up to the first summit last year. If you had told me ten years ago that the only thing between us and nuclear apocalypse was Dennis Rodman, I would have thought, “Yeah I’d watch that.”
Kim Jong Un is apparently very close with his sister, who was one of the high-level dignitaries sent to the Winter Olympics in South Korea. And he is married – he showed off his wife at a concert in 2012, which is apparently unprecedented. All other North Korean leaders have kept their wives and children far out of the public eye. It is believed that he has at least one child, but there could be more.
Kim Jong Un has introduced some mild economic reforms that he refers to as a “flexible collectivist system”. Some businesses are allowed more autonomy and there has been a renewed focus on agriculture, increasing output on collective farms. But their economy is still seriously constrained by the economic sanctions placed on them and their lack of diverse trading partners. If it wasn’t for their relationship with China, the economy of North Korea would most likely completely collapse – which is one of the reasons why the international community sees China as the key to solving the North Korean problem.
But, enough about economics, let’s get to the bread and butter of totalitarian dictatorships: purges! In 2017, Kim Jong Un pulled off a surprisingly brazen and public execution of his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam – the guy who just wanted to go to Disneyland. He was accosted in an airport in Malaysia by women who sprayed a deadly chemical in his face. Although Kim Jong Un has not claimed responsibility for the attack… I mean… come one. It was totally him. He had his own uncle executed by firing squad along with members of his family to eliminate any traces of a potential rival.
Kim Jong-Un has also continued the human rights abuses of his family. There are believed to be hundreds of thousands of prisoners in concentration camps. Some are supposedly being held on the “Three Generations” rule. This means that some political opponents who commit crimes against the state are punished for three generations. So there are people who have lived their whole life in a concentration camp because their grandparents fought in the Korean War against the north. Think about that for a second.
Despite all of this, Kim Jong-un does seem to have picked up his father’s habit of taking a lot of photos and making a lot of promises with foreign leaders. He has been open to dialogue with South Korea, with the Winter Olympics providing an excuse to bring both sides together, although typically for photo ops and a mostly symbolic joint ice hockey team. He has met with the South Korean president and both sides have expressed a desire to finally agree to a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War, although little headway has been made so far. But the best example of the Kim’s frustrating habit of making promises they don’t intend to keep also happens to be the one promise that could stand between peace and the destruction of the planet. So, fingers crossed?
Act 2: Gimme Those Nukes!
So, first question: why does North Korea want nuclear weapons? Short answer: because they would like to exist, please.
Basically, after North Korea lost its main ally – and military superpower Soviet Russia – in the early 1990s, the Kim regime realized it had to take the country’s protection into its own hands. Sure, they still had China, but China in the 1980s had started to liberalize and open itself up to the west – remember Deng Xiaoping from Season 1? So the Kims couldn’t fully trust China to protect North Korea from their growing economic ally, the United States.
The other reason why North Korea wants nuclear weapons is legitimacy. They want to be taken seriously on the world stage and they realized that the only surefire way to do that was to become a real threat so that the major powers would have to listen to them.
And finally, North Korea is like, “Wait… the U.S. and Russia can have over 12,000 nuclear weapons combined but we can’t have one? That’s messed up. And to that point, I say, “Yeah I can kind of see your point.” There are a few countries around the world who are pretty pissed about the hypocrisy of the United States walking around telling everyone else they can’t do things we’ve already done. But in this case, I have to say I’m fully in support of hypocrisy if it means a lower chance that Kim Jong Un could start World War III.
The main agreement that governs international nuclear issues is the NPT or the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This was begun in 1970 and since then, over 191 countries have signed on to the agreement. There are a few nuclear countries who have not signed on mostly because of the hypocrisy, mentioned above, and also because they feel a very real threat from another power in their region, like Israel, India and Pakistan.
The NPT has three pillars. First, non-proliferation. This basically means that states with nuclear weapons should not spread their weapons around – don’t sell them to other countries, militaries, or third parties. This pillar was a big concern in the 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union considering there were thousands of nuclear weapons stashed away in Soviet satellite countries. Known as “loose nukes,” the U.S. and the former Soviet Union worked together to contain these weapons and make sure they didn’t fall into nefarious hands.
The second pillar of the NPT is disarmament. This is aspirational at this point: basically, the signatories are all saying that they want to work toward one day creating an international situation where countries felt comfortable eliminating their nuclear weapons. Yeah right. I don’t know that nuclear weapons will ever totally go away but the number of nukes in existence has drastically dropped since the 1980s. For example, the arms race reached its peak in 1986 when there were 64,449 nuclear weapons in the world (all but 1,000 belonged to either the US or the Soviet Union. We get it. Y’all are the best. But don’t you only need like 10 nuclear weapons to thoroughly destroy the planet?) As of 2014, there were just 10,000 nuclear weapons in existence – so we’ve eliminated over 50,000 in the last 30 years. But again, doesn’t it only take, like, 10 to thoroughly destroy the planet?
Finally, the third pillar of the NPT is the peaceful use of nuclear energy. So as long as countries can prove that they’re not using nuclear technology for weapons, they are allowed to use nuclear power as a source of energy. This has been one of the big sticking points with Iran – they claim that they’re only developing nuclear power plants but we’re skeptical, and Israel claims, that it could be a cover for creating a nuclear weapons program.
But, let’s get back to North Korea. They signed the NPT in 1985 but have been really wary about letting inspectors come and examine their nuclear waste to prove that they were just creating nuclear energy.North Korea signed a specific agreement with the United States in 1994 and pledged to eliminate its old, less stable nuclear reactors in exchange for international support (i.e. money) to build new, state-of-the-art nuclear power plants. Buuut… in 2002 George W. Bush announced that North Korea had actually been building nuclear weapons this whole time. Dang it! Who was supposed to be watching North Korea?! Oh wait… was it us? Whoops.
In 2003, Kim Jong Il withdrew his country from the NPT and that same year announced they had developed nuclear weapons. From then on, the timeline of North Korea’s nuclear program is a hilariously terrifying study in flip flopping. One month they promise to give up their entire nuclear program in exchange for energy assistance, and then a few weeks later they’re like “Nope! We’re testing missiles, suckers!” And throughout that timeline the U.S. has flip-flopped between being super concerned about North Korea and making jokes about how their missiles kept falling apart in midair. But while we’re cracking jokes about the Kims and making movies like The Interview, North Korea was just back on its peninsula, slowly working away and flouting every international agreement regarding nuclear weapons.
Now, let’s be clear: there’s a difference between having nuclear weapons and having nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States. After you develop nuclear capabilities, you have to be able to miniaturize nuclear warheads so that they can fit on the tips of ballistic missiles capable of flying long distances. So, North Korea has been a nuclear threat in the region – especially to enemies South Korea and Japan – since the day they announced they had a nuclear weapon. But, as far as the United States was concerned we weren’t super worried. Sure they have nuclear capabilities, but they can’t launch them anywhere! Idiots… well… until 2016 when North Korea announced that they had miniaturized nuclear warheads that could fit on ballistic missiles. Shoot. But, even then, that’s not as bad as it sounds for us. I mean, again, it’s terrible for everyone living near North Korea. But, we wouldn’t be directly threatened until North Korea developed intercontinental ballistic missiles. Aha! So we’re safe. Well, until 2017 when they announced that they had developed an ICBM capable of striking anywhere in the United States. And in a pointed “F you” to the U.S., they announced this on July 4. How dare you interrupt our BBQs with a threat of nuclear war! How dare you, sir.
U.S. Options in North Korea
Over the last 15 years the international community has put a ton of sanctions on North Korea to punish it for violating their agreements but beyond that we’ve been kind of stumped as to how to solve the problem. In super basic terms, there are three main options: 1. Do nothing. But that’s not really an option, because, you know, dictators with nuclear weapons are bad. The second option is what we’ve been doing: punish North Korea with economic sanctions and hope that they get desperate enough to give up their nuclear program in exchange for more trade, business opportunities, etc. But, that hasn’t really been working.
The problem with international relations theory is that it depends on an idea called rational actors. So, in order to predict how different states will respond to different situations, experts have to assume that they will act rationally, because otherwise – how can we predict what they might do? The problem is not that North Korea isn’t rational. The problem is that their leadership’s values and goals are so drastically different from most of the rest of the world. So, whereas in our view, economic sanctions that make it difficult for regular North Koreans to get food should be a strong motivator. But that’s because most of our leaders are relatively compassionate people – and even if they aren’t, they have to get re-elected and voters can’t vote for them if they starved to death. But in North Korea, that’s not an issue. And in fact, the Kim regime has remained strong partly because its people are so weak and unable to resist from within. So, economic sanctions don’t work the way they would somewhere else.
The third clear option is war, or at least a limited attack. So, one option could be isolated strikes to take out their nuclear sites, but we don’t know where all of them are so it would be almost impossible to take them all out at once and prevent a counterattack. Another option would be war – but, historically, China hasn’t been super happy about U.S. troops getting close to its border – just ask Douglas MacArthur. And, an all-out war could lead to millions of deaths, mostly North Korean people who would be caught in the middle without any protection. So… that’s not great.
Now, it would appear that there could be a fourth option that experts could have never predicted. What if…. Hear me out… What if both North Korea and the United States were both governed by leaders who didn’t act rationally, at least according to international standards? What if the U.S. president was also less concerned about the happiness or satisfaction of the American people and acted more out of self interest? Hypothetically, this could open up an avenue for these two historic rivals to negotiate in a new way. And, weirdly enough, it would appear that this is exactly what has happened…
Act 3: And the Nobel Prize in Accidental Twitter Diplomacy goes to…
I want to be clear, here. I don’t think Donald Trump has any idea what he’s doing in North Korea. But, strangely enough, I think he’s crazy enough that it just might work. Last year Trump became the first president to ever meet with a North Korean head of state when he and Kim Jong Un met in Singapore. And, even though he didn’t achieve nearly as much as he said he did, experts are actually feeling tentatively more optimistic about the future of U.S.-North Korean relations as a result.
Here’s what came out of that summit:
- The U.S. gave NK some concessions, like suspending planned military exercises with South Korea, and not imposing new sanctions. But, the sanctions we already had are still in place and all of these concessions are reversible if NK fails to hold up its end of the bargain.
- Just months after the U.S. and North Korea were trading threats about “fire and fury” and inevitable war, Trump and Kim Jong Un were signing a joint statement that pledged to, “build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula.” Sure, it’s probably just words, but those words are way better than what we were hearing.
- North Korea has agreed to “work toward complete denuclearization.” Now, when and how are unspecified but just the fact that they’ve agreed to this is a pretty big deal. Sure, they’ve made promises like this in the past, but the most recent promise carries more weight for two reasons: first, they actually have nuclear weapons now so there is something to lose. And two, they’ve published the full language of the promise and shared it with the North Korean people in a government-made documentary. The North Korean people are almost completely cut off from the outside world and their government could tell them basically whatever they wanted to. For example, in the late 1990s when the U.S. sent humanitarian aid like food during the famine, the North Korean government claimed that ever since the North won the Korean War, the U.S. had paid tribute to their great nation as an apology for the war that we started. And during every Olympics and World Cup, doctored footage goes on North Korean news exclaiming how the North Korean athletes won everything and defeated the top teams on the planet! But now, with the internet slowly becoming harder to keep out of North Korea, they seem to be acknowledging that they won’t be able to keep their people in the dark forever. This move, to create a documentary and share with the public the agreement they signed, is pretty groundbreaking.
- And finally, while talks are happening, nuclear research and testing are not. As far as we can tell, North Korea has halted test launches since the summit was scheduled. So, again, talking to each other and creating empty promises is way better than threatening each other and launching missiles into the sky.
It’s important to note that there are many who are rightfully upset that Trump is willing to meet and shake hands with a brutal dictator. Have no doubts – the North Korean regime is one of the most ruthless on the planet.
According to Human Rights Watch, “The North Korean government restricts all basic civil and political liberties for its citizens, including freedom of expression, religion and conscience, assembly and association. It prohibits any organized political opposition, independent media and civil society, and free trade unions. Lack of an independent judiciary, arbitrary arrest and punishment of crimes, torture in custody, forced labor, and executions maintain fear and control.” No one is allowed to leave the country without permission from the highest levels of government and if anyone is caught trying to defect, they are put into horrific political prison camps “where they are subjected to torture, sexual violence, forced labor, and other inhuman treatment.”
So, when Trump shakes Kim Jong Un’s hand or calls him a “talented leader,” many around the world are horrified. But, do the ends justify the means? Is it better to negotiate with an evil dictator and possibly prevent more abuses? Or is it better to continue to punish him and make it clear he is the enemy, even if that means that the problem won’t get solved? I honestly have no idea.
This most recent summit in Vietnam was pretty definitely a failure. I mean, the whole point was to make a deal. They were just hours away from announcing whatever deal they had made. And then they both walked. Apparently Kim offered to dismantle his largest nuclear facility, but only this one – not any of the others, if Trump lifted the sanctions we’ve placed on the country. The U.S. refused to lift sanctions without guarantees of denuclearization.
But, long-term, the failure of the Hanoi Summit might not be as bad as it looks now. An editorial from NPR explained that up to this point both Trump and Kim had been relying mostly on their strange personal connection to bring both sides to the table. And I think both leaders thought that they could somehow bypass the decades of historical tension and miles of bureaucratic and diplomatic red tape to get what they want. But this summit proved that that wouldn’t work – for both sides.
For Kim, he now sees that the U.S. is serious and that he can’t just manipulate Trump into getting a better deal for himself. And for the U.S., if there is another summit Trump will probably be more cautious before jumping in. This summit was pretty embarrassing for him and he won’t want to walk into another negotiation without having his team do more of the legwork of polishing a deal that the North Koreans have already essentially agreed to. So, it’s possible that both sides needed to experience a failure to prove that negotiating world peace between two historic enemies both armed with nuclear weapons is, in fact, more difficult than just Tweeting at each other and shaking hands. It’s sad that both sides needed to be convinced of that, but alas, that’s the world we live in.
So, should Trump get the credit for the current, shaky detente between the U.S. and North Korea? Yes and no. There are two schools of thought on how Kim Jong Un views our current president. One side says that he sees him as an “easy target,” so to speak. Meaning, he might be easier to manipulate than previous presidents so that North Korea can get more of what they want out of negotiations. Another school of thought thinks that North Korea is to some extent scared of Trump because he seems less rational and more likely to take drastic action – like military strikes – than previous presidents. Either way, though, the outcome is the same – North Korea has come to the table. It’s probably a combination of both – Kim Jong Un recognizes that his power is not as strong as his father’s or his grandfather’s and he would love to be the “Great Leader” who turned North Korea into a legitimate nation on the world stage. Trump’s aggressive rhetoric probably helped him shore up some support at home to unite and find a solution to the so-called American threat. And the fact that Trump is less predictable and operates off of a diffferent set of values and objectives than most other presidents, Kim might see this as his best opportunity to get more out of negotiations than he would with another president.
Did Trump plan this all out when he started tweeting about North Korea? I find that hard to believe. But, his actions – however they were intended – have gotten us closer to a real agreement with North Korea than we’ve had in a long time. So we can all sleep better tonight knowing that North Korea probably won’t bomb us tomorrow because they realize that our own president might be just as temperamental and vindictive as Kim Jong Un. Sleep tight, America.