In the east corner, we have Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He is a 33-year-old ruthless killer who will seek to maintain power no matter how much his people or relatives suffer. He has little experience on the world stage; he inherited his position from his father. He’s as crazy as Dennis Rodman–they don’t go much farther behind the backboard and beyond the baseline than that. Kim Jong-un threatens to begin a nuclear war while wearing military get-up as his missile launchers are driven down the street, followed by goose-stepping soldiers. Saving face is essential, in his view, to maintaining power, since he has to preserve the concept of his divinity and feed the false narrative North Koreans believe about the evils that lie on the other side of the wall.
In the west corner, we have Donald Trump, President of the United States of America. He is a 70-year-old, ruthless business man and television entertainer who inherited much of his wealth from his father. He enjoys punishing people who cross him. Trump has no political experience, but he won the most recent election by painting the worst possible picture of the United States, making up stories, and lying regularly. It’s difficult to judge his mental stability because he assesses everything in relation to his massive ego. He apparently wanted to have missiles on display at his inauguration, which he falsely claimed drew the largest crowds ever. Trump never forgets the most minor slight, and he attacks the press for publishing fake news as he flip flops like a fish out of water.
The bell rings and Kim launches an attack. No, wait, it’s just a test. He is sizing up his opponent. He learns about his enemy’s defenses and how to land his punches. Trump responds, trying to maneuver into a favorable position, but he is far off course. His stance was as a southpaw but he finally gets steamed up, changes direction, and becomes a righty. Everyone is confused. The trash talk intensifies. Kim fires away, even though he had been warned not to. Trump blocks the shot. The ref, Xi Jinping, calls for a halt to the hostilities, but the combatants aren’t listening. Everyone is worried that the match may not be contained within the ring and those nearby in the stands worry they will have to join in the fight. Xi sends the two back to their respective corners.
Trump has the biggest, baddest arsenal ever. He is seated, flexing his muscles for his admirers. He’d like nothing better than to strike while Kim is not looking, do some damage, and scare him into submission. Trump figures that since he is the baddest kid on the block, everyone will bow down to him once he shows his might. Kim, however, seated across from him, knows he can do some serious damage. He will lose if this bout becomes a slug fest, but he knows if the punches start flying, the pain he inflicts will be great. As the crowd eggs the two on and their managers shout insults at each other, the odds of escalation increase. No one can win this bout, not even the promoters. It’s been a draw for quite some time.
This skirmish isn’t the first bout between competitors from North Korea and the United States. The battle never actually ended and the sanctions against the North have increased until there is little leverage left. The fight to the death seems like the only option. Trump wonders if its time to go for the knock-out blow.
The US has been using the stick approach for quite a while. The net result has been quite a bit of suffering for the North Koreans, which has increased Kim’s perceived need to boast about his power. The only real progress that has been made over the years is the size of Kim’s army, with over a million active duty personnel (making it the world’s fourth largest army) and almost 10 million total people on active duty, in the reserves or in paramilitary service. The US military has the largest military budget in the world and has more people in uniform than any other country besides China. The high level of training and technology makes the US military far superior to any other. It’s an army rational people would fear, but fights are rarely rational.
Given the leaders’ proclivities, a new approach to how to manage the bout seems necessary. Neither opponent can back down. They are in the ring, dressed to fight. Neither side can throw in the towel; the humiliation would be too great. The only way to end the fight is a thing Trump calls “the art of the deal.” Diplomacy, a word Trump ironically seems not to like, in his mind, projects an image of weakness. He wants his deals now. Total victory. Talking about resolving differences is not entertaining. Diplomatic skills are not Kim’s strong suit either.
As a viewer of this spectacle, I hope the US and its allies try the carrot, since the stick will continue to fail miserably, perhaps catastrophically. Ask the combatants to step down from the ring. Offer to end sanctions and reopen trade. Now is the best time to negotiate when people fear the consequences of not doing so. Maybe the UN can end the truce and bring about a peace settlement to calm Kim’s fears. If Kim had something to offer his people, the prospect of a brighter future, he may not need to be an isolationist and can stop acting like the caged animal the US has partially created.
Let Kim claim a victory for his people by forcing the Americans to the negotiating table. Could Trump chew some crow or does he only eat delicious looking pieces of chocolate cake? Finding a way to stop conventional weapons from hitting Seoul, stopping an invasion force from trying to over-run the DMZ, or preventing a nuke from going off in a populated region would be worth a bad taste in my mouth, but I’m not Trump. In return for the carrot of ending sanctions, the US would ask for an end to the development of weapons of mass destruction and would guarantee it would not interfere in the affairs of North Korea. Kim and Trump could put away their gloves without any blood having been spilt. The Korean War was a proxy war, the kind the United States ends up fighting all the time. We fought Russia in Korea, China in Vietnam, Iran in Iraq, and now its starting to look like Russia again in Syria. Ringing the bell for round two in the Korean bout is dangerous beyond belief; it would be a death knoll for millions of people.
Make the deal, Donny. Eat some crow if you have to. It’s called diplomacy. You can contend it was the greatest deal ever afterwards. Ending the Korean War would be a real accomplishment that no one could question.