Editorial: Hope and cynicism on North Korea

  • President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Sentosa Island, in Singapore, on Tuesday. AP

Thursday, June 14, 2018

One of the greatest challenges in assessing the Trump presidency is separating individual actions from the overall package. Trump’s North Korea gambit is a good example of that struggle.

This week’s summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore was indeed a Trumpian spectacle, which is not surprising. How could it be otherwise for two leaders who are obsessed with their own celebrity and fancy themselves kings? But just last summer, the talk was of two nuclear powers going to war; now there is cautious optimism about lasting detente. Trump deserves credit for that, but as with most everything this administration does, an asterisk is required.

Other than the historic face-to-face meeting and the end, for now, of military exercises in the region (which surprised the Pentagon and South Korea), the two leaders accomplished very little on the path to peace. There is no plan for North Korean denuclearization or any timeline for negotiations. No pressure was placed on Kim regarding human rights abuses. And any tension that was reduced was largely created by Trump and Kim themselves during a childish exchange of name-calling and saber-rattling that seemed destined to escalate into something far worse.

None of those details seem to matter all that much to the two men and their outsized egos. Trump will spin denuclearization as a done deal in speeches and tweets, and in the process give his party a little momentum heading into the mid-term elections. If it all falls apart, Trump can blame Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, America’s free press (“our country’s biggest enemy,” he tweeted on Wednesday), or any other person or institution he has trained his base to hate. Kim, meanwhile, goes home with more power and legitimacy than he had last week. If you’re the despotic leader of a country with a gross domestic product about one-quarter of New Hampshire’s, inducing the president of the most powerful nation on the planet to shower you with compliments and concessions on the world stage is a big win.

If Trump were a different kind of president – a different kind of human being – it would be easier to choose hope over cynicism when it comes to future relations with North Korea. It is unconscionable to root for any leader to fail – it was madness when the right did it with Obama for eight years and it is madness now. But when assessing what transpired in Singapore this week, it is impossible to ignore the president’s demonstrated inability to take the long view of anything, whether climate change, relationships with allies, trade wars, immigration, tax cuts or nuclear disarmament agreements.

Never before has America had a president so at the mercy of his desire for instant gratification, as Trump’s obsession with poll numbers, media coverage, crowd sizes and Twitter illustrate. That character trait may be of value in real estate acquisitions, but it is detrimental to the pursuit of lasting peace with a long-belligerent nation.

Nobody knows what will happen next, and so we can only hope that together North Korea and the United States bring a little more stability and prosperity to the world. We doubt that Trump can pull it off, but we would love to be wrong.