Call me utterly amazed by some of the discussion the last few days about what’s going on re negotiations with North Korea, and who should get credit for it. NPR in particular has been engaged in the kind of rhetorical schizophrenia that led me to dump them from my news mix for a year starting in December, 2016. They’ve had correspondents on who can report a fact, and then commentate as if they had reported its exact opposite, within the space of half a breath.
Best as I can tell from my extensive radar of “random friend comments that Facebook deigns to show me,” quite a few people are getting dizzy from fumes, so let’s talk.
In the past year, North Korea has taken their nukes, and put them on missiles that can hit anywhere west of Bangor, Maine. There’s a decent chance the bomb would fizzle, and there’s solid evidence that they’ll aim for New York and hit Kansas, but as even a missed fizzle would glass an inconveniently large area with people in it, people got rightly concerned.
This led to Trump’s infamous fire-and-fury response, and as with Nixon, how you responded to it was entirely based on how you heard it. Folks who only heard the audio had the shit scared out of them at such high velocity that it became a $500 procedure in Los Angeles. But if you saw the video, and how Trump immediately crossed his arms and put on the facial expression of a toddler demanding a cookie, your takeaway was that we’re totally fucked not because of the belligerence of the statement, but because he clearly has no idea what he’s doing.
Fast forward to the present. Big things are happening: Trump is meeting with Kim, John Bolton and his mustache are running the show, the president of South Korea says Trump deserves the Nobel. If big things are happening, our cognitive dissonance tells us, good things might result. If good things might result from a previously insoluble shitstorm, the dissonance continues, clearly the people in charge must know what they’re doing through some application of 12th-dimensional diplomacy.
This is all completely understandable. It’s a known cognitive flaw. The people in charge, no matter how incompetent they obviously are, must have access to some inscrutable wisdom or arcane lore—government seeeeecrets, if you prefer—that makes what they do rational.
Let’s review recent history:
North Korea has been playing bait-and-switch for roughly 40 years, through a process of saber-rattling, and then seeing what they can get when they briefly but ostentatiously stop. This time, they have their largest saber ever, which legitimately did shock security experts by how much they accomplished in a short time. The thing is, they’ve gotten what they’ve wanted forever—a meeting with the president, the international status that entails,1 a lot of fodder for continuing to prop up the home dictatorship—without making a single concession. Their stated policy for literally their entire existence is the reunification of Korea (under their rule, natch). Shaking hands with South Korea isn’t something they gave up, it’s another win for them.
1North Korea is famously bad at understanding our motivations, and appears to be missing the obvious signs there is bipartisan consensus and widespread international support that starting in 2021 or 2025, we all whistle, gaze somewhere into middle distance, and pretend that the last several years never happened. This will infuriate both the Trumpistas, and folks like me who want to see them utterly repudiated and fed Mueller-butter sandwiches.
Meanwhile, south of the 38th parallel, we have an ally with all the political stability of the Italian parliament, the refined decorum of the Knesset, and the comfortable security of the fifth guy to pick up the revolver in a game of Russian roulette. In a move that created tidal waves of jealousy across our country, they impeached their last president and sent her to jail for 24 years. The new guy is faced with:
- an impending negotiation of absolute existential importance to his country
- a US president who is cajoled by flattery in much the same way that tween girls are cajoled by Taylor Swift
- a US presidential advisor who is entirely likely to advise that we nuke everything between Beijing and Tokyo, then negotiate with the cockroaches in 20 years
- a North Korean regime that is not merely proven batshit, but is raging at an even higher level of batshittery. Kim’s half-brother was assassinated with a nerve agent. In a squeeze bottle. At an airport. By a woman who was told it was a prank for a reality show. It’s rumored that this, and other DPRK cabinet moves with extreme prejudice, are taking place to put down an internal split that could lead to a coup.
Given all this, entirely independently, of his own volition, and without any ulterior motives whatsoever the president of South Korea says that Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.2 And people seem to have bought it. I have heard the words “diplomacy” and “Trump” in the same sentence, which appears to be the same logical thought process that leads people to look at drunk people with a Ouija board and say, “must be ghosts.”
2As for the actual people who award the Nobel Peace Prize, considering that they gave it to Obama in 2009 for, quote, “giving us the warm fuzzies after the last guy” endquote, Trump could emit flaming unicorn ass rainbows that cure death and end poverty, and still be six slots behind Taylor Swift for consideration. Corollary: Trump’s successor will have hers staple-gunned to her forehead during the inauguration ceremony.
Granted, I’ll admit a certain bias, in that Trump could literally offer me his hand to drag me out of Hell, and I’d believe that he reached for a dropped KFC drumstick and helped me only because he’s equally incompetent at chicken. It would take quite a few foreign policy experts3 lining up to say Trump is a genius before I’d think otherwise.
3All of them.5
This does have a façade of being the sort of impasse that could be hastened along with a wildcard. That appears to be the slender thread of a rational basis for breathy exclamations about Trump’s success, for getting people to the bargaining table who have been begging to be at that particular bargaining table since 1953. The thing is, if Trump agrees to cut all ties to South Korea and have every Chevy made with Pyongyang steel, in return for the promise of an 18-month pause in North Korean nuclear ambitions with no IAEA oversight, that is among our best possible outcomes. People don’t seem to understand—literally, it’s unthinkable—that this is the kind of meeting where two people with a boundless capacity for their thoughts being nontangential with reality, and the emotional temperament to go to war over a misunderstanding or personal slight, also have the ability to actually do it.4
4In all seriousness, it would go like this: Kim makes a rhetorical threat identical to every rhetorical threat North Korea has ever made, the DPRK version of asking about your family before getting down to business. Trump is scared, or worse, offended, because he genuinely believed that he would be treated with deference. He turns to Bolton for advice. Pyongyang is glowing as soon as they can get Trump outside the blast radius, as is Seoul and anyone else in the crossfire.
5I can’t remember, but apologies to Dave Barry if this joke is a direct lift.