This past week we saw something most of us never expected: United States President Donald Trump met with Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore. By any measure this meeting was important as North Korea (and its allies China and Russia) has been at war with South Korea (and its allies, including the United States) since 1950. In 1953 a cease fire was declared but there was never a peace treaty. US Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama have wanted to declare peace but it’s never happened. This conflict found new urgency when North Korea announced in 2003 that it had developed nuclear weapons. Since then American Presidents Bush and Obama have struggled to find a way to deal with a dictatorship that willingly starves its own people in its quest to bully the rest of the world.
In the transition between administrations President Obama told President elect Trump that North Korea’s nuclear threat would be the most urgent problem he’d face. President Trump looked on this as his biggest opportunity for greatness. And to be fair, even those of us who have never supported President Trump would celebrate if he could end this conflict and bring North Korea into the 21st Century. We don’t want his people to continue to starve and we don’t want them to be led by a leader who craves a place at the adult table more than anything else.
These two leaders met and both came away from the meeting declaring victory. But here’s the problem: President Trump announced that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat. But their signed agreement falls much shorter than the rhetoric. Both parties agreed to a remove nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula but it gives no timetable or ability to verify. Many of us find this problematic because North Korea has broken this promise before. Meanwhile, President Trump promised to cancel annual joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea in the event of North Korea aggression (even using the North Korean term “war games”).
So here’s the takeaway: Kim made a promise he’s broken several times while Trump made a promise that makes the rest of us less safe if North Korea follows its normal pattern.
As I’ve said, we’ve seen this before. In the 1930s much of the world looked to the rise of Adolf Hitler and recognized the possibility that Germany sought European domination. In 1938 British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with Adolf Hitler in the hopes of averting the war Hitler was clearly planning.
Hitler was effusive in promising Chamberlain that after taking parts of Austria and Czechoslovakia (with high German populations) he would leave the rest of Europe alone. Chamberlain returned to England promising “peace in our time.” Chamberlain and Hitler famously signed a non aggression pact.
Hitler played Chamberlain. On his return to England, Chamberlain, said this: “Now I recommend you to go home and sleep quietly in your beds.” Less than a year later Germany invaded Poland and that caught nobody off guard except Chamberlain.
I can’t help but think that Kim is playing Trump the same way.