BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
The night air is balmy and dark, lit only by the smattering of hotels, restaurants, and the flashes of news cameras. A historic moment is taking place in Singapore, the gem of Asia. This once colonial backwater has, in 70 years, evolved into what I believe is one of the most amazing states in the world. Its influence and wealth far outstrips its small size (it is a quintessential city-state that, if it were ancient times, would fit nicely along with ancient Athens).
There is a calm silence that resonates throughout the dark night there and, at times, in the distance, one can hear the lapping of the ocean along the banks of the glorious city-state.
Now, the American president, Donald J. Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un–as well as their massive entourages–are sharing limited space in the city-state that Credit Suisse ranks as a five out of five on its global power index. The bucolic setting likely feels like a home away from home for President Trump, what with its humidity and seaside warmth–one would likely almost think they were back at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s southern retreat.
The wet and tropical environment likely feels reminiscent of Pyongyang to Kim. Later, both leaders will join each other for a private, face-to-face meeting that American national security adviser, John Bolton, has portrayed as the “sizing up” part of the meeting.
But, this is no mere social occasion between the two leaders. This is the first time that any U.S. president has met with the North Korean leader in more than 15 years. And, there is much riding on what many (including myself) are worried might be the shortest, historical meeting ever. After all, no one other than Kim Jong-un himself has any inkling of an idea about what the North Koreans will do.
For that matter, few other than President Trump are fully aware about the American strategy. Hilariously, President Trump claimed that he needed no preparation before departing Washington, D.C. for his abbreviated meeting with the G-7 leaders in Canada (which he then left to fly to Singapore early–what do you think he was doing there early? Preparing, of course!). Naturally, the media went bonkers over Trump’s claim–exactly as they were meant to.
For his part, the legendary retired U.S. Army General Jack Keane (presently the chairman of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.) believes that Kim wants to make a deal. He is optimistic that Trump will walk away from this summit in Singapore with momentum at his back. Keane has argued that Kim is fundamentally different from his father, Kim Jong-il.
Whereas Kim Jong-il behaved, according to General Keane, as a “rug merchant,” engaging world leaders in mercurial, extremely limited, transactional diplomacy (he’d take hostages and then trade them away for wider concessions from the West, for instance), Kim Jong-un behaves far differently.
Since the start of the recent U.S.-North Korean engagement under President Trump’s leadership, the Central Intelligence Agency has long assessed Kim Jong-un to be a strategic thinker. Many in the U.S. intelligence community have argued that he might be capable of immense evil (and, boy, is young Kim ever!), but Kim Jong-un has a more global and longer-term view of both the world and his regime’s place in it.
Despite this, however, the one American stipulation for moving forward with normalization of relations is for North Korea to utterly de-nuclearize. While it is possible that Kim just might do this, it is also likely that Kim will not–especially since he is no more than 18 months away from having a fully operational nuclear weapons capability.
Other commentators, such as the former Democratic governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, believe President Trump is behaving correctly in meeting with Kim Jong-un. However, he (like many) worry that all Kim Jong-un wants is a photo-op with the U.S. leader for propaganda purposes back home.
Richardson also believes that Trump should avoid as many pictures with the North Korean leader as possible, so as to deny Kim the diplomatic victory of being seen as an equal on the world stage with the United States. The former governor does not want Trump’s need for the appearance of a victory to needlessly elevate North Korea’s stature and importance in the world order.
North Korea is a Big Shrimp Among Whales
Yet, American policy since the end of the Korean War has done exactly that. Think about it: the Korean War ended in a technical stalemate. However, few believe that if hostilities had continued before the ceasefire was signed between the warring parties, that the Western alliance supporting South Korea would have folded to Pyongyang (and China).
Following the decision to end that conflict, tens of thousands of American forces were housed on the Korean Peninsula, in a constant state of war. Then, an endless series of diplomatic near-misses occurred between the North and South Koreans–entrapping the Americans as well.
To be sure, North Korea was far more powerful back then than it is today. In fact, from 1950-1970s, it was Pyongyang and not Seoul, that was considered the dominant socio-economic and military force on the Korean Peninsula.
But, all of that changed by the 1980s. When the founder of the Kim dynasty, Kim Il-sung, passed and his bloodthirsty son, Kim Jong-il, took over, North Korea began its inexorable decline.
Today, North Korea’s GDP is $12.38 billion (in U.S. dollars), whereas South Korea’s GDP is $1.411 trillion (in U.S. dollars). Japan, North Korea’s other major rival, is still higher at $4.9 trillion (in U.S. dollars). North Korea’s only major trading partner is China (making North Korea a de facto vassal of Beijing).
Famine is a routine occurrence blighting the North Korean population. Only a small cadre of elite Communist Party members are educated, let alone wealthy in any sense of the word. Meanwhile, the CIA reports that unemployment in North Korea is upwards of 25 percent.
But, that’s okay, because North Korea is home to one of the most pervasive network of gulags in modern times. While they have sizable military force, the military equipment they use is rudimentary when compared to any of their neighbors. Without the prospect of nuclear arms (which, even those would be rudimentary compared to American nuclear weapons), North Korea would be no serious threat to the combined militaries of the United States, Japan, and South Korea.
However, North Korea occupies a significant amount of resources and time within the American national security state. Fear of North Korean nuclear capabilities–and their willingness to proliferate to anyone and everyone–is the source of American fears.
We maintain 28,500 U.S. troops on the peninsula; we spend an ungodly amount of money propping up the South Korean military, and the United States is always prepared to wage what every U.S. military (and South Korean military) leader believes will be one of the most savage and bloodiest wars in modern times.
For former Governor Richardson to caution Trump about “needlessly elevating” North Korea in the eyes of the American people and the world is an absurdity for the ages.
If anything, the United States has had a schizophrenic policy toward North Korea. On the one hand, we view North Korea in the way that Richardson does: as a tiny, backwater country not worthy of our time or effort. Yet, it is one of the few countries that the United States is prepared to spill enormous amounts of blood and treasure fighting. Clearly, this is an important state.
Why did the North Koreans begin developing their nuclear program in earnest 33 years ago?
Yes, the North Korean state “religion” is largely predicated on retaking the South and then sealing the peninsula off from Western influence. However, it was also because Pyongyang wanted to be viewed as an equal in the eyes of the West–specifically, in the eyes of Washington, D.C. And, how were they treated by the West when the announcement was made that they were nuclear-capable in the early 1990s?
The Clinton Administration treated them like pariahs still and essentially bribed Pyongyang to not develop their nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, the Clinton team helped to set the stage for one of the onerous sanctions regimes in history that effectively strangled North Korea.
Not understanding how the minds of pre-modern men living in postmodern times works, no one in American’s foreign policy elite countenanced how insulting the move was to the North Korean leadership. Not only were they committed to a crazy ideology–possessed of a willingness to use nukes to further their insane geopolitical aims–but the North Koreans were doubly insulted when the news of their nuclear arsenal did not generate the desired result in the West: a willingness to not only talk with Pyongyang, but to treat them as another, sovereign state.
So, Pyongyang gladly took the money. However, they doubled-down secretly on their production of nuclear weapons, and expanded their menace to the West. Like a child, they wanted attention, and like disinterested suburbanite American parents, the United States government was simply too busy and preoccupied with itself to pay North Korea any heed.
Whatever evil the Kim regime has committed, it wants to be accepted as it is by the international community. Trump meeting Kim face-to-face in Singapore, and giving him the grace (yes, that is the right word) of being seen as an equal just might pull him back from totally embracing the manic side of North Korean ideology.
Trump Wins No Matter What Happens
Even if the summit collapses; if Trump fails to get actual denuclearization of the North Korean state (which, again, I suspect he will because nukes have become synonymous with legitimacy in the eyes of Pyongyang), then Trump’s behavior will at least solidify the concept that North Korea, and not the United States is truly the aggressor.
Thus, if (God forbid) a shooting war actually did begin on the Korean Peninsula, the United States would not be blamed by most of the world. Trump–and by extension the West–is sticking his proverbial neck out to meet with Kim. If Kim slices Trump, the world will blame Kim, and the U.S. will many more allies in defending South Korea.
As with all historic meetings between enemies, let us trust but verify–and let us hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.