Donald Trump’s recent performance at a press conference alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin sparked outrage from across the American political spectrum, as Trump sided with the U.S.’s long-standing adversary by dismissing allegations of Russian cyber-meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
While it was somewhat chilling to watch an American president stand with a hostile autocrat against his own intelligence agencies, the press conference was simply the latest instance of Trump’s trademark propensity for creating his own reality in defiance of facts and insisting that others join him in sharing the delusion.
From crowing about non-existent inauguration crowds to peddling a fraudulent university, Trump’s skill in hawking utter falsehoods that are nonetheless consistently believed by a substantial portion of the American public will go down as his true political legacy.
Trump’s evangelism on behalf of a parallel universe will almost certainly cause lasting damage to Americans’ perceptions of their political system, but it also must be acknowledged that there is one aspect of foreign policy where it has had largely positive benefits: the country’s burgeoning relationship with North Korea.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
Despite near-unanimous consent among Korea experts that Kim Jong Un is not serious about relinquishing his nuclear weapons program, Trump has made the contrary view the underpinning of his recent overtures to a leader he once famously derided as “Little Rocket Man.”
Both the President and his point-person on negotiations, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have remained stubbornly persistent in their view that North Korea is, in fact, sincere about denuclearization.
As with his other delusions, whether Trump genuinely believes this to be the case or not is irrelevant. Much more important is the fact that his outreach has already led to some surprising achievements in U.S.-North Korea relations.
First, Trump’s decision to cancel upcoming military exercises with South Korea has resulted in the de facto implementation of the “freeze-for-freeze” deal previously advocated by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping as a first step toward resolving the nuclear crisis. (A freeze on North Korean nuclear and long-range missile testing has also been consistently touted as an important first step by the noted nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, a frequent visitor to North Korea over the years.)
This has undoubtedly contributed to the decrease in tensions on the Korean peninsula that began at the beginning of this year.
His outreach has already led to some surprising achievements in U.S.-North Korea relations
THE PROPAGANDA GAME
Second, there has been a marked difference in North Korean propaganda since last month’s Singapore summit between Trump and Kim. Military-themed posters have been replaced by images depicting industry and agriculture, anti-American souvenirs have been removed from gift shops, and harsh denunciations of “U.S. imperialist” atrocities were absent during events commemorating the 68th anniversary of the Korean War this past June.
Brian Myers, a leading expert on North Korean propaganda and its usages, once suggested that “toning down” the vitriol would be a good litmus test for gauging North Korean sincerity toward negotiations.
This change in tone can thus be interpreted as the most concrete sign that Kim Jong Un is serious about improving his country’s dysfunctional relationship with the United States.
Finally, the regime’s willingness to discuss repatriation of the remains American soldiers killed in the Korean War is another area in which Trump deserves some credit. Unlike in World Wars I and II, when American soldiers were buried in battlefield cemeteries stretching from Europe to the Philippines, the remains of those who died fighting on the Korean peninsula were all sent back to the United States.
Given that shift in the treatment of the deceased, the reality that an estimated 5300 fallen soldiers still lie north of the DMZ takes on a greater significance. If their remains are eventually returned as a result of Trump’s outreach, it should be viewed as no small accomplishment.
STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
While these developments do not necessarily portend North Korean nuclear disarmament, they nonetheless represent hopeful signs that the two countries are on the right path for overcoming decades of hostility and mistrust.
A North Korea that has ceased development on its nuclear program, that is drawing closer to South Korea through the concurrent engagement of President Moon, and feels secure from outside threats is one with which the United States can do business.
This would, in turn, provide an opportunity to affect positive change for the North Korean people, particularly in the fields of economic development and human rights.
The American people want to believe that Kim is serious about denuclearization
All of this is possible without Kim actually giving up any of his weapons, so long as he is able to maintain the fiction that he will – one day, at some point, eventually – by keeping his program in its present deep freeze and taking the occasional symbolic gesture to keep negotiations on track.
For that to happen, though, Trump must continue to share in the fantasy, and beyond that, keep the American people on board so that criticism from the naysayers who are well aware that Kim is simply stringing the President along can be effectively stymied.
Fortunately, this is perhaps the simplest part of the equation, as more than 70 percent of Americans approved of the Singapore summit, easily making it the most popular moment of a historically unpopular presidency.
In one of his less publicized conversations with Billy Bush, Trump brushed off criticism about inflating his TV ratings by saying, “People will just believe you. You just tell them and they believe you.”
Clearly, the American people want to believe that Kim is serious about denuclearization.
For the sake of continued progress with North Korea, here’s hoping that Trump continues to tell them that he is.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES
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