Decade after decade, one U.S. president after another, Democrat and Republican alike, knew that the tyrants who rule North Korea were slowly but surely developing the means to incinerate American cities. Those presidents did nothing, or at least nothing effective.
President Trump could have responded by tweeting: “Clinton, Bush, Obama left me a mess! Too late now! Sad!” Instead, he decided he would try to solve a problem that has become a crisis.
So last week he met with Kim Jong-un in Singapore. Has the threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons and increasingly sophisticated intercontinental ballistic missiles been eliminated? Of course not and I wish the president wouldn’t claim otherwise. I also wish he hadn’t been quite so effusive in his praise of the mass-murdering, 30-something despot. But perhaps there is method in Mr. Trump’s maddening diplomacy.
As you may have heard, Mr. Trump showed Mr. Kim a 4-minute video, an ersatz Hollywood movie trailer titled “A Story of Opportunity.” The narrator announces: “A new story. A new beginning. One of peace. Two men, two leaders, one destiny. A story about a special moment in time, when a man is presented with one chance which may never be repeated. What will he choose?”
Will the North Korean ruler “shake the hand of peace and enjoy prosperity like he has never seen?” Will he become “the hero of his people?”
The mini-movie was mocked by most media. Vanity Fair called it “schlocky.” Elle magazine — perhaps not the first place you’d think to turn for insight on national security — headlined: “Fanboy Trump Made a Fake iMovie Trailer for Kim Jong Un.” Troy Patterson, an entertainment writer for The New Yorker, lambasted “The Sensational Idiocy of Donald Trump’s Propaganda Video for Kim Jong Un,” concluding: “this is the sum of what Trump knows of persuasion.”
In fact, Mr. Patterson may not be far from the mark. “Strategic communications” is a term frequently employed by people who haven’t the foggiest notion what it means. At a minimum, it implies understanding that you persuade people based on their values and interests — values and interests that may be quite different from yours and those of your friends.
We don’t know much about Mr. Kim’s psyche. Does he just want to live large for the next half century and then pass on the prison camp that is North Korea to a fourth generation? Is he determined to conquer South Korea and humble Japan? Is he happy being feared or does he long to be loved? Has he come to the conclusion that his dynasty — like that of the Saudis — requires reform in order to survive? Does he ever suffer pangs of guilt about all the blood he has shed and all the lives he has ruined?
We do have evidence of one quirk: He likes movies — not avant-garde film classics like “Last Year at Marienbad,” “Jules and Jim” and “The Seventh Seal,” but action and horror flicks such as “Rambo,” “Godzilla” and “Friday the 13th.”
With all this in mind, President Trump’s national security team decided to try something completely different. They produced a fast-paced video intended to communicate three essential messages. 1) Mr. Trump is unlike his predecessors. 2) He is making the dictator a one-time offer to enjoy the “friendship, respect and goodwill” of the U.S. and other nations. 3) If this offer is declined, the alternative will be, for Mr. Kim and his line, nothing short of catastrophic.
As to that last point: Amid the flattery and utopian coming attractions, the video suddenly cuts to missiles launching and fighter jets ascending from an aircraft carrier. For a moment, the film itself seems to be burning and there’s an explosion — images that suggest “fire and fury.”
If this bunker buster blockbuster accomplished its mission, Mr. Kim went home pondering such questions as: “Is the big guy bluffing? Can he really crush me? Would he?” Or, if he’s a serious action movie buff, he might be asking himself: “Do I feel lucky?”
His answers should become clear within weeks. If he decides to keep the commitment he made to “work toward” de-nuclearization, that will indeed be historic. If, on the other hand, he decides to renege and call Mr. Trump’s bluff, the president will need to quickly and dramatically boost sanctions. The term used prior to the Singapore meeting was “maximum pressure,” a euphemism for economic warfare.
At the same time, the president can be expected to review with his national security team the various kinetic and “nonkinetic” (read: cyber) options one presumes Pentagon strategists have been formulating. Are any preferable to permitting one of the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons?
Also: For years, Republican and Democratic administration alike promised our allies an American “defense umbrella.” Breaking that promise also would be historic.
Finally, keep in mind that if the U.S. proves incapable of preventing North Korea from acquiring deliverable nuclear weapons, the chances are slim to none that other anti-American regimes — e.g. the Islamic Republic of Iran — won’t follow suit.
I don’t think we’ve seen this movie before. I don’t think we know how it ends. But I suspect it’s coming to a theater near you.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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