From fire and fury to a Singaporean summit, North Korea’s détente


In Washington, D.C. President Donald Trum (front) and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (rear) welcome home three detainees released from North Korea.

Adam Jackman and August Zeidman

Sept. 30, 1938.  The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, meets with Führer of the German Reich, Adolf Hitler, in Munich, Germany.  Chamberlain would sign a peace treaty with Germany to allow the Führer to control the Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia which borders Germany.  At the time, this peace was commended as an act of great international diplomacy, and  Chamberlain declared it “peace for our time.”  However, the world would eventually see that this agreement did not check Germany’s aggression but rather allowed the nation to expand its territorial holdings and build up its military might until they were ready to strike. 

Fast forward to May 9, 2018.  Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, meets with Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, in Pyongyang, North Korea.  Both parties met to discuss the logistics of a meeting between President Donald Trump and Mr. Kim on June 12 in Singapore.  This meeting will revolve around the potential end to the North Korean nuclear program, which they have been developing since the 1990s and have threatened to use many times.  While it may seem that the United States and North Korea are coming close to a meaningful peace agreement, the world must not forget the danger of dictatorial regimes.  When examined under closer investigation a potential ‘peace’ with North Korea seems strikingly similar to the ‘peace’ with Germany in 1938: a deal based on appeasement instead of authority.

Donald Trump has North Korea right where he wants them.  It seems, to his critics’ dismay, that his hardline policies on North Korea have forced their hand into negotiating.  This past fall, President Trump issued many statements attacking North Korean nuclear policy and leader Kim Jong Un.  In August 2017 he said, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”  Those who have followed the president ever since his days as a real estate mogul are familiar with this sort of rhetoric.

“First, I negotiate. I would negotiate like crazy. And I’d make sure that we tried to get the best deal possible,” Trump said in 1999.  “Now, if that negotiation doesn’t work, you better solve the problem now than solve it later.” 

Going into the election, President Trump believed North Korea had been given their chance to negotiate peacefully under former President Obama, and that it was now time for action.

“President Obama watches helplessly as North Korea increases its aggression and expands further and further with its nuclear reach,” said Trump on the campaign trail in April 2016. 

This aggressive policy toward North Korea was met with deep criticism by Trump’s opponents, but it was not out of line with the strategy that he laid out in his campaign. 

The evidence is clear that the United States was being overlooked by North Korea in the development of its nuclear arsenal.  The critics of Trump’s “fire and fury” comments responded with accusations of inciting nuclear war, but without his rhetoric, their would have been nothing to stop Supreme Leader Kim from furthering his nuclear program.  Former president Obama tried to make agreements with the rogue nation many times: for example he reached out to the new leadership of Kim Jong Un after the death of Kim Jong Il in 2011, even offering to meet with him.  However this was met coldly from opponents in Korea and Congress.  Conservative lawmakers in Washington DC shot this down as a sign of resigning the position of assertive dominance which the US has long enjoyed in its conflict. 

Over the years, President Obama’s relations with North Korea deteriorated as Kim continued to aggressively pursue a nuclear armament and tested ballistic missiles several times a year.  This worried stalwart American allies in the Asia-Pacific region including South Korea, Japan, and even such distant nations as Australia and New Zealand.  North Korea’s nuclear tests grew in magnitude and frequency as the years advanced culminating in the successful testing of what the North called a hydrogen bomb.  While experts cast doubt on this claim it was still obvious that North Korea was now a nuclear capable state.

These heightened tensions continued into the new presidency of Donald Trump as the summer of 2017 seemed to contain a daily broadside from one side or the other.  To some commentators war seemed imminent as Kim Jong Un threatened to surround the US territory of Guam with a “sea of fire” or calling President Trump a “dotard,” inciting retorts such as insulting Kim in front of the United Nations General Assembly as “Little Rocket Man.”  Twitter diplomacy continued as late as January 2018 with President Trump declaring, “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’  Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” 

However, in the days and weeks that followed, events moved quickly.  On Mar. 7, North Korea agreed that it was willing to begin talks with the United States and South Korea about denuclearization and formal peace.  A secret Easter Weekend trip to Pyongyang by then yet-to-be-confirmed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to solidify the seriousness of this offer.  On Apr. 26, Kim Jong Un met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the Demilitarized Zone which separates the two countries.  Pictures of the two embracing and laughing together sparked hope for a long-awaited detente.  Another secret mission took place just over a week later when Pompeo returned to North Korea and came home with three American citizens who had been imprisoned in Korean work camps, handing another win to the Trump Administration. 

On May 10, many people’s predictions were confirmed when Trump announced in his customary fashion (on Twitter, that is) that he would be meeting with Kim Jong Un in on June 12 in Singapore.  This has elated many and broken through decades of stagnant foreign policy regarding North Korea, giving a glimmer of hope in a world of conflict.  Optimism has dampened slightly through recent remarks by the North Korean news agency that they would not meet with Trump if the negotiations were going to be one sided and they released their annual exhortations against the joint US-South Korea military exercises.

President Donald Trump has enjoyed a rare moment of success in his foreign policy towards North Korea with a diplomatic breakthrough that no president had been able to overcome previously.  June 12 is coming up fast and the world awaits with bated breath the results of such an historic summit.  Hopefully, existing tensions can be lessened and peace can become a realistic prospect for the Korean Peninsula, a land so divided by decades of war.