North Korea is testing missiles again. Early this morning it launched its third short-range-missile test in a week. It also appears to be building bombs again. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that analysts who’ve been reviewing satellite imagery believe “North Korea’s scientists have ramped up production of long-range missiles and the fissile material used in nuclear weapons,” even as intermittent talks with the U.S. continue.
How would President Trump respond to North Korea’s provocations? Today we received one answer. He launched a tweet thread that minimized the significance of North Korea’s actions and culminated with this declaration:
….Chariman Kim has a great and beautiful vision for his country, and only the United States, with me as President, can make that vision come true. He will do the right thing because he is far too smart not to, and he does not want to disappoint his friend, President Trump!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 2, 2019
We’ve come quite a long way from Trump’s threats of “fire and fury” and his taunts of “Little Rocket Man.” And while those taunts were destabilizing, these compliments are no more helpful. They represent vital affirmations that only serve to reinforce North Korea’s commitment to its nuclear arsenal, and, like Trump’s high-profile public meetings with the vile Kim Jong-un, send a dangerous message to America’s enemies.
The first thing you have to understand about North Korea is that its leaders haven’t just constructed cults of personality. (To begin to understand the depth of the functional worship of North Korea’s leaders, I’d urge you to read Suki Kim’s Without You There Is No Us.) They’ve constructed a myth of North Korean national and cultural superiority with the nuclear and missile programs at its heart.
So, when the most powerful man in the world puts North Korea at the center of his public attention with lavishly staged summits that place the two nations on equal footing, praises Kim, and even walks to meet him in the DMZ, he is by word and deed affirming the country’s race for the bomb. He is affirming North Korea’s greatness — and it’s vicious leader’s, too.
Why, under those circumstances, would North Korean leaders abandon the weapons that have placed them in the middle of the world stage? Give up the missiles and nuclear warheads, and their nation immediately regresses to little more than a heavily armed dictatorship with a basket-case economy and a substantially smaller GDP than that of Wichita, Kan. It goes from striking fear in the heart of the mighty United States to something fit to be the subject of tear-jerking late-night charity commercials.
Even worse than the message sent to the North Koreans is the message sent to other American rivals. In the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, former Indian Army chief of staff Krishnaswamy Sundarji said, “One principal lesson of the Gulf War is that, if a state intends to fight the United States, it should avoid doing so until and unless it possesses nuclear weapons.” The extraordinary, rapid demolition of Saddam Hussein’s army — which was hardly judged a foregone conclusion before the start of hostilities — sent a signal that initiating a straight-up fight with the American military was an act of extreme folly.
But Trump’s diplomacy-by-flattery is now sending an even more destabilizing message: Nuclear weapons don’t just put you effectively beyond our military’s reach; they generate the praise of our president. Press through sanctions, build the bomb, and then reap the diplomatic rewards. Speaking of Kim, the Journal’s Seoul bureau chief, Jonathan Cheng, notes that by building his arsenal and sharing the world stage with Trump, he’s “getting to have his cake and eat it too.”
That’s a message that resonates far beyond North Korea’s borders.
Donald Trump has a problem. World leaders are starting to figure him out. His tweeted bluster is at odds with his repeated, stated desire to avoid additional foreign conflicts. So he speaks loudly and carries no real stick. Or, he’ll change his tone entirely and indulge even the worst of men with the highest of praise.
Even worse, if you commit the ultimate act of defiance — like testing a hydrogen bomb or missiles that can likely reach the U.S. mainland — you can get one of the world’s ultimate diplomatic rewards: a “great power” summit with the United States.
And, finally, putting aside the nuclear calculations for a moment, we cannot ever forget that Trump’s praise is fundamentally false. Kim Jong-un does not have a “great and beautiful vision for his country.” He’s one of the worst human-rights violators in the entire world. He runs gulags, persecutes Christians at a scale Americans can’t comprehend, and slaughters his political enemies in the most gruesome of ways. And rather than condemning his crimes against humanity, the president is praising his “vision.”
Trump is far from the only American president to naïvely seek a handshake and photo-op with a dreadful foreign dictator. Commanders-in-chief of both parties have naïvely (and often arrogantly) embarked on quests for legacy-making foreign-policy achievements. But as ever, Trump is an unusually extreme case. He’s over-the-top, and he’s sending exactly the worst message to America’s enemies: Nuclear weapons are your ticket to greatness.
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