clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why are we taking Donald Trump’s Korea diplomacy seriously?

All he does is lie and break promises. This will be no different.

Inter-Korean Summit 2018 Photo by Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images

Donald Trump is a liar. More than that, he’s a fraud. Not just a person who makes factual misstatements but a person who has gotten ahead in life through extensive use of bullshit, leaving in his wake a trail of broken promises.

From his unpaid bills to contractors to his scam university to his brief period ripping off the shareholders of his eponymous company, this is what Trump does — he exploits normal human nature to sucker people into trusting him, and then he exploits his own ever-growing fame and power to get away with breaking the rules.

As president, this pattern has only continued.

He never delivered his much-promised plan to release a “terrific” Obamacare alternative that would cover everyone. Instead, he backtracked on his promise to protect Medicaid from cuts. He’s dropped the promise to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare, dropped the promise to break up big banks, dropped the promise of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, and dropped the promise to develop a tax program that would leave the rich paying more — and, of course, his version of “draining the swamp“ has brought a level of corruption to official Washington that would have embarrassed the congressional barons of the Gilded Age.

None of this is even remotely controversial. Democrats scorn Trump’s lies while Republicans rely on the fact that he’s a liar to safeguard their ideological orthodoxy. He never took on the National Rifle Association, he never delivered a solution for the DREAMers, and of course Mexico isn’t going to pay for the wall.

Everyone knows this, which raises the question of why everyone is pretending to believe that Trump may make a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea.

Trump’s Korea rhetoric is alarming and dishonest

A good clue that we are being set up for some bullshit is that not only is the Trump administration’s North Korea policy being headed up by Donald Trump, but it has been conducted so far like you would expect a bullshitter to conduct policy.

The key turnabout in the region, after all, has come from the fact that Trump decided to make a large, unilateral concession to the North Koreans. As Josh Smith and David Brunnstrom reported for Reuters in March, “for at least two decades, leaders in North Korea have been seeking a personal meeting with an American president,” and across all that time American presidents have been saying no.

“North Korea has said these things before,” Mark Dubowitz of the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies told them. “Kim Jong Il wanted to meet with President Clinton.”

Trump, perhaps wisely and likely under the influence of South Korea’s new progressive leader Moon Jae-in, has decided to reverse longstanding US policy and make this concession to Pyongyang. They plan to meet in Singapore on June 12. It’s not a crazy thing to try, and it’s certainly a good deal less crazy than Trump’s previous policy of berating the North Koreans with inflammatory tweets. Republicans would, of course, normally slam a Democratic president who decided to do this. But there are worse sins than hypocrisy in this world, and the Nixon-to-China dynamic could be beneficial here.

Except rather than defend the president’s dovish new direction, Republicans — including the White House itself — are spinning the meeting as a concession by the North Koreans.

“Trump’s Tough on North Korea Approach Is Working,” according to a press release from the RNC, and this kind of spin has gotten picked up everywhere from Fox News to local television stations.

When a notorious liar does something dramatic and new and starts immediately lying about what it is that he’s doing, a sensible reaction is to become alarmed and suspicious — not to suddenly become credulous and naive.

Trump’s Korea gambit poses huge, scary risks

Much of the US national security establishment, however, has decided to simply block out everything they have learned from everything Donald Trump has ever done in his career in business and politics.

Nicholas Burns, a 27-year veteran of the US foreign service who capped his career with a stint as the No. 3 person at the State Department under George W. Bush, for example, told CNBC when the meeting was first announced that “President Trump has kept Kim Jong Un off balance” and “I think this is positive that the president and Kim Jong Un are going to turn toward diplomacy because we were headed for a collision with North Korea.”

Back in the real world, meanwhile, Trump isn’t a master strategist keeping the North Koreans off balance. He’s an erratic guy with poor impulse control and little understanding of issues who does things like blurt out that Americans held captive in North Korea and sentenced to serve in labor camps received “excellent” treatment from the regime that used them as hostages.

And there are at least three big ways this could end up going badly:

  • Trump could make a big show of a decisive diplomatic breakthrough at some strategically opportune moment in the fall to try to gain the upper hand in the midterm elections, only for the actual details to prove meaningless when there’s time for analysis later.
  • Trump could sell out American interests by agreeing to an unfavorable deal, simply for the sake of the positive PR of a major breakthrough — with Republicans in Congress backing him up out of partisanship and nobody able to do anything about it for years.
  • Trump could show up in Singapore, discover that Kim is not in fact interested in the kind of thorough disarmament that Trump has in mind, and then, feeling miffed by the North Koreans, embrace National Security Adviser John Bolton’s preference for an unprovoked American military strike.

Instead of talking about these risks, however, the mainstream press — Time, the New York Times, CNN, etc. — seems obsessed with the possibility that maybe Trump will deliver a historic diplomatic breakthrough with Pyongyang and then not receive the level of credit and adulation he deserves.

I’m happy to admit that it is, at least in theory, possible that a vainglorious, dishonest, ignorant, and corrupt president who is already lying about his own diplomatic initiatives will shock the world by delivering something fantastic. But Trump has been in the public eye for decades, has a well-deserved reputation as a braggart and a liar, and deserves to be met with nothing but skepticism.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.