I must admit that when I stared at the jarring image of the “stars and stripes” in alternation with the “blues and reds” of North Korea I thought for a moment that I need to increase my dosage of antipsychotics. I pinched myself twice, but I simply could not wake out of this dream.
And now you too must face the facts. This rushed and bungled U.S.-DPRK summit has plopped in your lap, prematurely, its offspring ― neither fish nor fowl ― with its fetid amniotic sac still attached. And it has turned its twisted maw up toward you, screeching “Feed me!”
Sure, you can talk all you want about how it was spawned by nasty little boys playing unsafe diplomacy in the coatroom. It was international relations at a discount practiced by used car salesmen, strategy thrown together by barkers and pimps, policy fumbled by playboys and freeloaders.
But no matter what you may say, it is most definitely not going back into its hypothetical womb.
The whole event was marketed, quite explicitly, in the same manner as a prize fight between heavyweight champions. With help from hawks like Ambassador Harry Harris and Admiral Mike Mullen, who kept up the grumblings of war in the background, and Trump’s hints of some devastating outcome if things did not go his way, the lead-up paralleled perfectly Mohammad Ali’s taunting of Joe Frazier in the days leading to their match. This entertaining, and terrifying, routine must have felt more comfortable for Trump than actual policy that would have meant responsibility and would have bored him.
But if all the confusion meant many things to many people, it sure the hell was not funny. The famous line from Carl von Clausewitz kept coming back to me:”War is an extension of incompetence by other means.”
I was getting even more worried after I saw that video made for Kim Jong-un by Trump’s team that offers a choice between a nightmare future for North Korea of radical overdevelopment, or all-out war.
And the scrap of paper I found lying on the floor of the men’s room, marked “Classified” did not make me feel any more comfortable.
“Pompeo: So we hold this summit meeting and announce that peace is coming and that all the U.S. troops will be pulled out of S. Korea. Defense stocks tank big time. That’s where you guys come in. Buy up those stocks at fire-sale prices and hold them for a week. We are putting together this nail-biting military confrontation with China next week in the South China Sea. I am telling you, your family is going to beg you to build a bomb shelter. But hold on tight to those Lockheed Martin stocks because we are going to make a fortune!”
Both Kim and Trump were visibly nervous at the event. It was more visible in Kim, but that is only because he has not had the experience of running casinos for decades. It was a classic Trump moment: when in doubt, double your ante. And everyone just followed along. As they say, “in the land of the sleepwalkers, the blind man is king.”
The entire process was deeply anti-intellectual, a play for the base desires of the audience; not an appeal to their “better angels.” Trump’s post-summit press conference was wall-to-wall fluffed-up emotions and associations, without any logic, a heady fog of confusion that should be just enough to get him through the midterm elections.
And let us not forget to look behind the curtain. Trump came from an acrimonious G7 meeting that could well be the death knell for that organization. The strains with Europe over trade and security are so serious that a complete fracture, and the threat of an arms race between previously allied European nations, is no longer impossible. Back in the United States, Trump’s sometime supporter Rudolph Giuliani suggested that Trump could shoot the former director of the FBI with impunity. This was not the first threat of violence this year, but such common use of such threats has not been seen in U.S. politics since the 1850s.
We have no choice but to make “virtue of necessity,” as Geoffrey Chaucer put it. Can we rear this malformed agreement, ignoring the misspelled tweets, and learning to love the “C+” joint statement, praying all the while that this whole process will work out?
We have to.
Stranger things have happened in history. It is time for us to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
First and foremost, let us get this discussion the hell out of Singapore.
It was no accident that Singapore was the site for this mixture of Pebble Beach and reality TV. Singapore is not a nation at all, but a place where global capital from Asia, the Middle East and Southeast Asia is siphoned off to support a surreal world of exclusive hotels, like the Capella Hotel where the summit was held. Singapore has few poor people and it has carefully cut itself off like a gated community from the troubles of the region; as the joke goes, Singapore is “Disneyland with the death penalty.” It is the perfect place for such a surreal summit.
This exclusive event was not an invitation of North Korea into the international community, but rather a welcome for Kim Jong-un into the billionaires club. There may have been some questions about human rights, but no mention of tuberculosis and malnutrition.
As we think about what needs to be done next, let us consider what was never mentioned at the summit:
1) The frightening arms race in East Asia between China, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States.
2) The U.S. build-up of next-generation nuclear weapons in blatant violation of the non-proliferation treaty
3) The implications of climate change for the peninsula, and region, including the spread of arid land in North Korea, and increasingly in South Korea
4) The increasing concentration of wealth in North and South Korea and the resulting distortion of society and of politics.
5) The decay of the media to such a degree that meaningful news is no longer available.
These are the serious issues on the Korean Peninsula, and in the world. And we need to focus on these.
We need a fundamental shift in direction, but the initial momentum of the Trump-Kim meeting can be helpful. We need to practice a political aikido. We need to take the force these two leaders threw at us for the purpose of self-promotion, and we must skillfully redirect it in a new, positive direction. This can be done, but it takes tremendous concentration and mindfulness on our part as citizens.
But we should not forget, as we set out to build true and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, that the struggle for peace will require at least as much bravery and as much commitment as does the waging of war.
Are you ready for peace?