A truly historic summit was held in Singapore Tuesday as the United States and North Korea met to discuss their relationship in the first-ever conference of leaders in the 65-year-old undeclared Korean war. The most dangerous rogue nuclear power may now want to engage with the rest of the world.
Last September, things looked very different. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley gave a powerful speech demanding that Russia and China join the denunciation of Kim Jong Un’s missile tests, designed to demonstrate that he would be able to deliver the nuclear warhead he was developing to Seoul, and perhaps Japan. Now, for the first time ever, the president of the United States is meeting with the ultimate dictator of North Korea, with the blessings of the president of South Korea. Incredible as it seems, it appears that diplomacy by Donald Trump has been effective.
Every step of the way, doom has been predicted. When the early negotiations came adrift last month, the president sent a letter that would have ended all conversation in conventional diplomatic circles. When Kim Jong Un began to rattle his nuclear sabre again, Trump responded that the U.S. could and was perhaps willing to use it devastatingly greater nuclear arsenal if threatened, and called off the scheduled meeting. But this was not a conventional power, and the meeting went ahead as planned. Kim Jong Un is not a conventional world leader either, but an absolute despot heading a communist dictatorship that is uniquely hereditary, a sort of people's republic governed by an absolute monarch.
Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, began the family franchise in 1948, and imposed extreme isolation to protect North Koreans from suspecting that their ‘socialist paradise’ was extreme poverty. When the neighboring paradise of China switched its focus from classic class struggle to ‘economic development’ under Deng Xiaoping, Kim’s father did not follow suit, and scrapped his experimental economic zones in favor of a ‘military first’ policy, which prioritized what was characterized as defense spending but was really the beginning of the pursuit of nuclear power. But when Kim Jong Un inherited power in 2011, it had become too difficult to hold the world entirely at bay.
Average North Koreans had learned of the ‘Gangnam Style’ standard of living enjoyed by South Korea from smuggled DVDs, cell phones, and flash drives, reminiscent of the smuggled writings of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s "Gulag Archipelago" in the dying days of Soviet isolation. But rather than poetry and philosophy, these internet images were of classic capitalist consumption. Young North Korean elites saw themselves enjoying sushi bars, squash courts, and taxis. North Korea has announced that it plans to welcome 2 million tourists by 2020, and has built ski resorts, water parks, and a dancing dolphin aquarium, in service of one of the government mottos, “Let us turn the whole country into a socialist fairyland.”
To be sure, the disease, starvation, and grim poverty of North Korea is very real outside of the elite bubble. The national commitment to war spending is not faltering even as the elites indulge in yoga classes. But despite the petulant on-again-off-again negotiations leading up to the summit, the titan of the Trump Empire may be uniquely able to negotiate with a young dictator looking to change the culture of his dreary country. Donald Trump may not know diplomacy, but he sure does know hotels, casinos, and project development techniques. Kim Jong-un has lived in the West and knows what lifestyles and amenities are available in the First World. Like Indian rajahs who visited Victorian London, Kim may want to take back to his country some of the everyday luxuries and comforts he saw in his years overseas.
Some of this change was seen by the world at the recent Olympics, which were tightly controlled and choreographed, but much of the world was surprised at how presentable North Korea was at all. This is still not a place for Americans to visit casually, as the recent release of hostages demonstrated. But Kim’s interest in transforming his nation may be sincere now that he has gotten his nuclear ambitions recognized by the world, and his dictatorship respected like a gang lord in a turf war. The 33-year-old dictator is half the age of Trump, but their personalities may be weirdly compatible and their interests are certainly similar. Kim wrote a book on architecture in the 1990s, and Trump is known for the striking facades and building designs.
No matter how you feel about Trump, we should hope for peace to come out of this meeting, which may be a historic example of unlikely individuals being in the right place at the right time.
Cynthia Stead of Dennis may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.