This week we witnessed momentous and unprecedented scenes in Singapore, as the president of the United States sat down with the leader of North Korea, in the first step of a process that could ultimately lead to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Unfortunately, this aspiration is far from a foregone conclusion, despite the friendly handshakes, back-patting, and the positive soundbites emerging from both sides during and after the summit.
North Korea remains an entrenched part of the “axis of evil”, a repressive state controlled by an evil dictatorship that proactively engages in violence against its own citizens – who have an average life expectancy that is more than ten years lower than their South Korean neighbors.
At the head of this wicked dictatorship is Kim Jong-un, President Trump’s co-star at this week’s meeting, which makes the president’s effusive references to the North Korean leader as “very open,” “very honorable,” “very smart,” “very worthy,” “very talented,” and as someone who “wants to do the right thing,” rather difficult to stomach.
On Fox News, Trump went even further. When the interviewer pointed out that the North Korean leader had “done some really bad things,” Trump’s response was, “yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things,” implying that America regularly engages with leaders of the kind the diplomatic community refer to as “bad actors.” Most notably when the United States signed an agreement with the Iranian regime in 2015; the Islamic Republic of Iran is in close competition with North Korea for “the world’s most repressive regime” top spot.
But two wrongs never make a right, particularly as Trump was so scathing in his criticism of the Obama administration for having signed that accord in the first place. Ironically, he abandoned the Iran deal only a few weeks ago, making good on one of his most controversial campaign promises.
In light of this week’s events and Trump’s gushing praise for the North Korean dictator, it does now appear rather churlish to have criticized Obama for cozying up to a rogue state.
The media has had a field day. Even Republicans feel betrayed by Trump’s nonchalant approach to a man who has between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners languishing in his prisons.
One prominent Republican, former Florida congressman David Jolly, felt compelled to tweet, “for the record of history, never before has a U.S. President spoken this way of a dictator accused of crimes against his own people.”
The usually reserved rhetoric of The Economist took a sharp turn towards sarcasm, in a line that says it all: “to the extent history is playing any part in all this, it is in its tendency to repeat itself.”
Summarizing the concerns of everyone who has an interest in the success of the Korean disarmament initiative, the article pointed out there was “no evidence Mr. Kim sees denuclearization as meaning that he should dismantle the nuclear arsenal he, his father and his grandfather put so much effort into creating and the industrial complex which supports it.”
In other words, despite the extraordinary spectacle of a U.S. president meeting with a vicious unreconstructed dictator, and the ubiquitous telegenic moments, the goals of each party could not be more different, and the gap between them seems unbridgeable.
To be fair, there was a very candid moment at the summit press conference, when Trump appeared to admit that he was in well over his head and might need to bluster his way out of a disaster when the goodwill factor had worn off, and nothing positive had materialized. “I mean, I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong.’ I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.”
This offhand remark holds the key to the president’s tactics, and his expectations. When dealing with adversaries, one should try to make them feel good, even if showing them deference diminishes one’s dignity, and saying nice things sounds hollow and unreal. Nothing will be lost if a positive outcome is achieved. If not, who can blame someone for trying to use an ill-deserved charm offensive for the greater good?
After all, our greatest prophet Moses did just that, in the midst of the greatest threat to his forty-year leadership.
During the ill-fated Korach rebellion, Moses made extraordinary efforts to pacify the insurgents, even his perennial nemeses, Dathan and Abiram: “Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab; but they said, ‘We will not come!’” (Num. 16:12). Instead of having them arrested and carted off in irons for their role in the insurrection, Moses invited them for a private audience to air their grievances – an extraordinary display of humility for a man of his stature.
The medieval commentary, Rashi, adds a further layer to this gesture. Quoting the Talmud (Sanhedrin 110a), he declares this verse as the biblical source for using conciliatory language in the pursuit of a peaceful resolution. At first glance, however, nothing conciliatory was said by Moses in this verse. As a matter of fact, Moses is not quoted at all.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Opatow (1748-1825) elucidates this anomaly by pointing to the gratuitous reference to Dathan and Abiram as the “children of Eliab,” a fact already mentioned earlier (Num. 16:1). In mentioning their father, Moses wanted to elevate them by identifying and associating them with their family heritage. The reference to them as “children of Eliab” would make them feel good, and everyone would treat them with respect, even though they did not deserve it.
Dathan and Abiram’s response was negative, but the precedent was set. If one has the slightest chance of avoiding catastrophe by saying something nice to people like Dathan and Abiram, it is certainly worth a try.
Hopefully, Kim Jong-un will prove to be more cooperative than his biblical predecessors, and the threat from him and his regime can be mitigated for good.
Photo: Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump shaking hands at the red carpet during the DPRK–USA Singapore Summit, June 12, 2018 (Public Domain)