HANOI, Vietnam – President Trump stalks away from the Metropole Hotel, leaving behind him a mass of unfulfilled promises and wounded egos. The second North Korean summit has failed, and no agreement has been reached. The signing room sits barren and empty–a feeling of missed opportunity hangs thick in the air.
Current US-North Korean relations sit at the tail-end of a hostile and tumultuous past. The US first rolled out heavy sanctions on North Korea during the Bush administration, though the country had already been served a variety of crippling embargoes from the UN a decade earlier. Before Mr. Trump’s inauguration, President Obama warned the president-elect that North Korea would prove to be a serious concern for his coming administration. After assuming office, Trump quickly became one of the first US presidents to ever publicly threaten war on the country.
As early as 1999, Trump was calling North Koreans “wacko” and “very bad people.” After the 2016 election, he declared that the nation would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” if they ever threatened the US. The president’s slamming of the “Rocket Man” in his first UN address in September 2017 struck a particular chord with the public and the media; this reckless provocation felt dangerous and unbridled. By now, both nations’ bombastic insults of one another were mounting in intensity; in response to Trump’s address, Kim reportedly called him a “mentally deranged US dotard,” threatening to “make him pay,” purportedly with nuclear retaliation. North Korea later reported that they’d developed missiles capable of striking any and all parts of the United States.
And then, suddenly, something changed. North Korea announced its wish to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics of 2018. South Korea agreed. After the games, Kim Jong Un personally invited President Moon of South Korea to travel north, initiating the first round of peace talks between the two countries in over a decade. Within a week of their conference, Trump eagerly accepted a surprise invitation from Kim to meet and discuss denuclearization. Just two days earlier, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the press that the US was “a long ways [sic] from negotiations” with the dictator.
The first-ever summit took place in Singapore, on June 12, 2018, evoking bewildered scorn and criticism from Trump’s opposition. Beyond concerns about forging an amicable relationship with an tyrannical regime, there was backlash over the lack of substantive progress that was actually made. Many felt that Trump had been played; the two leaders had simply signed a vague statement of support for eventual denuclearization. Trump cut back on sanctions and canceled military exercises with South Korea in return for what amounted to empty promises. No concrete action-plan emerged.
Nevertheless, Trump returned to the States touting his victories and assuring the public that North Korean missiles were “no longer a threat.” He confidently entered the second summit last February, fully expecting to come to a more definitive and all-encompassing resolution–even preemptively scheduling a signing for the treaty that was sure to come–only to find that, without the USA’s lifting of all its sanctions, Kim was absolutely unwilling to consider disassembling its primary enrichment facility, let alone its entire arsenal. The summit was cut short. Both leaders left with a terse handshake. Upon returning home, President Trump said that his relationship with Kim remains “strong.”
North Korea: A ghastly hellhole of despotic terror. And yet, the extent to this terror remains a mystery to much of the American public. People always talk about North Korea with a vague reference to its “crimes against humanity,” a phrase we associate with many countries, including Venezuela, China, and Iran.
The truth is that the horrors of North Korea are on another level entirely. Millions have died of starvation over the last three decades. Hundreds of thousands more, many of them children, are malnourished. Crippling famine has forced North Korea to heavily rely on fertilizer made of ash and human waste, which in the winter is chipped out of toilets and sewage systems and distributed around the country. Citizens are now subject to a human feces quota. The songbun–a rigid social caste system based on loyalty to the Kim family and personal wealth–controls all aspects of everyday life, including where citizens are allowed to live, work, and go to school. Electricity, plumbing, and everyday appliances are luxuries. Many workers are forced into manual labor without pay. Under heavy, Big Brother-like surveillance, citizens are taught to turn on their neighbors and families and report disobedience. The media is entirely controlled by the government; the only available internet is a separate server that is basically a propaganda machine.
But the most arresting–the most horrific–crimes of North Korea are found within the electric fences of its prison camps, the existence of which the government denies, where prisoners are starved, raped, tortured, and bred by abusive guards. Reasons for incarceration range from watching South Korean DVDs to attempting defection.
Shin Dong-Hyuk, a rare defectee and thought to be the only escapee of an internment camp, recounts his story in his biography, Escape from Camp 14. He was born into captivity; his parents were political prisoners, and so he, too, was a criminal. As a child, he was subject to psychological terror and physical torture, raised to believe that the only way to purify his “tainted” blood was by denouncing his own treasonous family. Before the age of 15, Shin turned his mother and brother in to the authorities when they tried to escape, which resulted in their execution. In a later interview, he explains, “I was expected to just do manual labor and to work. I had no rights, I had no concept of what human rights were; I was destined to live and die in this prison camp.”
Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un–believed to have assassinated his half-brother, his uncle, and other family members after assuming power in 2011–enjoys all the spoils of supreme leadership: private yachts, private golf courses, private chefs who travel the world to find and import the most exotic foodstuffs, and a friendship with Dennis Rodman.
This is all a way of saying that, when Trump says he trusts him, as he’s said time and time again throughout these talks and in the wake of their aftermath–that they “fell in love,” even–your stomach should do a somersault.
So what’s really behind Trump’s sudden change of heart? His diplomatic approach was no different than his POTUS predecessors–except, perhaps, in rhetorical style–until the beginning of last year. To understand the new US diplomatic strategy, you must ask: what’s in it for Trump?
This is a question of ego. Trump has made no secret of his desire for a Nobel Peace Prize. After all, denuclearization in North Korea is an untapped arena, one that has stumped US presidents for decades. (Of course, they were all stumped because they understood the difficulty of the situation and approached it with deserved nuance.) Trump is already the first president to meet face-to-face with a North Korean head of state, and in his mind, successful denuclearization is a one-way ticket to glory. A Nobel Peace Prize would be the cherry on top of the image of success and tact he likes–no, needs–to project. This is a man who faked his own headshot on a Time Magazine cover and displayed it in his golf clubs around the world. For him, it doesn’t stop at recognition; the proverbial cherry, to Trump, is everything. It epitomizes and solidifies the respect he so desperately craves.
It’s no secret that Trump is also motivated by a desire to “best” Barack Obama and undo his legacy wherever possible. His clear jealousy of the former president–Nobel laureate and a much more popular man–fits this narrative. Trump even asked the Prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, to nominate him for the award this year, then proceeded to boast about it in front of reporters:
“They gave [the prize] to Obama. He didn’t even know what he got it for. He was there for about 15 seconds and he got the Nobel Prize. He said, ‘Oh, what did I get it for?’…
I mean, [Abe’s nomination letter] was the most beautiful five-letter—five-page letter. Nobel Prize. He sent it to them. You know why? Because he had rocket ships and he had missiles flying over Japan. And they had alarms going off—you know that. Now, all of a sudden, they feel good. They feel safe. I did that.”
Nominations, mind you, are meant to be kept secret for 50 years after their submission.
Trump is so openly desperate for validation that Kim Jong Un has learned how to play him just right. He’s fed Trump’s sense of self importance by showering him with praise–in part through the succession of “love” letters he sent to POTUS after the first meeting–and refusing to blame him for the summits’ shortcomings, instead blaming those around him, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
To date, North Korea is still moving forward with their nuclear program. They have the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction, a capability which, according to US Intelligence, they are unlikely to ever give up (a statement to which Trump angrily tweeted, “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”). While the nuclear testing site in Pyongyang was shut down after the 2018 summit, active sites have since been discovered, via satellite, in other parts of the country. According to Politico, “Trump told Fox News’s Sean Hannity… [that] North Korea is ‘not ready for [denuclearization of its arsenal] and I understand that fully, I really do. I mean they spent a lot of time building it.’”
If President Trump’s first priority really was making the world safer, he wouldn’t be holding a summit before an actual resolution was in sight. As The New Yorker notes, “A summit of leaders is usually the reward rather than the starting point. Normally, months or even years of diplomatic legwork are required to work out terms to be formally approved by heads of state.” Trump is so concerned with stamping his name on a treaty that he is overlooking the very necessary process of peace. Actual results are of second tier importance, it’s as simple as that. Whether this is incidental is a different matter. Perhaps peace, no matter how it is achieved, is preferable to its alternative, especially when nuclear warfare is on the table. Nevertheless, the American people shouldn’t go to sleep at night feeling warm and fuzzy as the denuclearization proceedings continue. The North Korea summits have exposed, perhaps for a second time, a psychological Achilles heel belonging to the leader of our nation. He is all too willing to overlook tyranny in pursuit of his own goals. He is all too willing to sell out the dignity of his own citizens in return for praise and regard from leaders of other nations, as he did with American student Otto Warmbier. We saw this phenomenon with Putin, and we’re seeing it again with Kim.
Anya (’22) is a prospective political science major and Arabic correlate and the VPR’s Deputy Politics Editor. She has interned with Environment Massachusetts, served as the Student Member for her town’s Energy Advisory Committee, and is now the Chief Editor of Eutopya Magazine.