The US government has issued an official commemorative coin for President Donald Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un — a summit that has not happened yet. The coin, pictured above, is more than a little troubling.
The US military has long issued so-called “challenge coins” — metal disks roughly the size of a poker chip that commemorate specific events or accomplishments. The tradition, which began as a way of rewarding soldiers for particularly impressive feats, has now been popularized and even spread to civilian parts of the government. A military detachment that works directly with the White House, called the White House Communications Agency, has been issuing them regularly when the president travels abroad.
So while it’s weird that Trump is minting a government coin with his face on it, it’s not uniquely bad in and of itself. This particular coin, however, is.
Part of the problem is the design. An official American coin with a likeness of Kim Jong Un on it that refers to him as “Supreme Leader” feels off, to say the least, given that his government is currently holding at least 120,000 of its own people in vicious camps designed specifically to hold and punish political prisoners. The coin also depicts Trump and Kim looking at each other eye to eye, as if they’re on equal footing — exactly the kind of status boost that the pariah regime in Pyongyang wants to achieve in this summit.
But the most fundamental issue with the coin is that the summit has not yet taken place. Trump is preemptively celebrating the summit itself as a major accomplishment, making it harder for him to walk away and declare failure if North Korea isn’t as cooperative as he expects.
This kind of pageantry makes the president’s personal reputation contingent on the summit being a success, when, in fact, most North Korea experts believe North Korea won’t give Trump what he wants.
The basic issue is that North Korea has said it will never give up its nuclear weapons, but Trump insists that it must as a condition of any deal. This gap seems unlikely to be bridged before the meeting, which is scheduled for June 12 in Singapore. North Korea is already threatening to walk away from the talks if the US won’t recognize that nuclear disarmament is off the table.
It’s hard to imagine this issue being resolved in a face-to-face sit-down between Trump and Kim, to put it mildly. So then the problem becomes: If the talks are a failure, and their failure makes Trump look like a fool given how much he’s touted them, how does Trump react?
Do we return to the cycle of threats of war that brought us frighteningly close to violence last year?
The coin itself is trivial and silly. But what it represents is a White House that’s taking a victory lap on the North well before they’ve actually accomplished anything — a level of investment that could potentially have dangerous consequences down the line.