Monday, June 11, 2018–I am glued to the coverage of the summit between Donald Trump and Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. We can have no idea what this will mean six months from now or six years from now. But it is a great moment in history no matter what. The Korean war ended in 1953, but the 38th parallel has been one of the most serious flashpoints on the planet ever since. Despise President Trump if you wish–he has provided plenty of evidence for our contempt–but what if it takes the equivalent of a “Dennis Rodman figure” to make this happen? Bill Clinton didn’t do it. GW Bush didn’t do it. Barack Obama didn’t do it. Trump was right when he said our previous 40 years of policy towards North Korea did not prevent the regime from developing nuclear weapons: 60 or atomic devices, and hydrogen bombs, too). President Trump is the norms-shatterer, and he refused to listen to those who said we must not give a ruthless dictator the credibility that comes from appearing on the world stage with the American President.
Maybe President Trump will bring about a historic breakthrough that his predecessors have been unable or unwilling to help create. If so, he will deserve our gratitude. Here’s why.
I saw a NASA documentary film a year or so ago that showed images taken from the International Space Station. One of those images provided a contrast between South Korea and North Korea at night. South Korea was all lit up, lights everywhere. North Korea was almost entirely black, because it is a desperately poor country, a vicious military “utopia” that has diverted such wealth as it has to weapons development and regime security measures. The photograph of the Korean peninsula reminded me of Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous statement about America north and south of the Ohio River in the 1830s:
“The State of Ohio is separated from Kentucky just by one river; on either side of it the soil is equally fertile, and the situation equally favourable, and yet everything is different. Here [on the Ohio side] a population devoured by feverish activity, trying every means to make its fortune. . . . There [on the Kentucky side] are people who make others work for them and show little compassion, a people without energy, mettle or the spirit of enterprise. . . . These differences cannot be attributed to any other cause but slavery. It degrades the black population and enervates [saps the energy of] the white.”
Seeing that film threw me into a serious depression. Millions of people live in North Korea. The accounts we have of life there are deeply disturbing: near-starvation, grisly public executions, profound repression, a wholesale grayness to life, deprivation, sadness, desperation. Why should the same people south of an artificial boundary carved out by the United Nations and the United States be prosperous, well-fed, and comparatively free, and those same people north of that artificial boundary live in a manner last seen in the seventeenth century–or the seventh?
It seemed to me that the Free World should intervene, that a broad coalition of prosperous nations should step in, remove those in the north who hold their people down so cruelly, and unite North and South Korea. Why should there not be re-unification on the Korean peninsula of the kind we saw in Germany in the late 1980s? Why does the western world permit this madness to continue? Why have we chosen to “live with” this nightmare scenario?
The United States has a larger, more expensive military than the next 15 or so nations. We are essentially infinitely powerful. Why not use our immense power to right some of the wrongs of the world? What good is it to be the most powerful nation in human history, the sole hegemon of the planet, and not use that immense power and moral authority to make the world better where it cries out for reform?
A couple of years ago I visited the Douglas MacArthur museum in Norfolk, Virginia. I’ve never been much of a fan of MacArthur, but I came away from that experience deeply impressed both by MacArthur’s greatness–however flawed by colossal arrogance and vanity–and even more impressed by the museum. So I read a couple of biographies of MacArthur, and afterwards felt less certain that I was on Truman’s side in the great dispute that led to MacArthur’s dismissal on April 11, 1951. Korea was the arena of MacArthur’s greatest moment and also his gravest mistake. His incredible landing at Inchon (September 10-19, 1950) was one of the supreme moments of the twentieth century. It changed the course of the Korean War and made it possible for South Korea to be saved from the absorption aggressions of North Korea. But his subsequent over-reach, worthy of the Iliad’s Patroclus, getting too close to the Yalu River when he was explicitly forbidden by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President to carry the war so close to the Chinese border, a blunder that brought the Chinese into the war and nearly led to a UN (i.e., American) debacle.
I urge everyone to do some serious reading about these things. Korea was not (as M*A*S*H would have it) merely pre-Vietnam. The whole nature of the conflict was different. Here are a few books that I very highly recommend, especially the work of the great David Halberstam, one of the greatest journalists of the second half of the twentieth century:
Martin Walker. The Cold War: A History.
David Halberstam. The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.
William Manchester. American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964.
David McCullough. Truman.
We have no idea how this story will play out, of course. Brian Williams of MSNBC called today’s meeting “a handshake that changed the course of history.” We will see. But what if Donald Trump pulls this off? What if his bold move, even if it fails in the short term, marks the moment when the re-unification of the Korean peninsula found its beginning? What if 10 years from now, or 50, or 100, the 25 million people of the DPRK (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) have better lives, more food, even a little more freedom? What if in his egomaniacal way Donald Trump proves to have crafted the sparking moment that ends a conflict that began seventy years ago, and reduces the tensions in one of the most volatile and unstable parts of the world?
Every American should hope that President Trump’s bold, arguably reckless, move changes the course of human history. It may well come to nothing. This may be not much more than a moment of narcissism for two colossal narcissists. But it may be so much more than that, and–whatever happens–we have the glory of living through one of the most dramatic moments of our era. If this meeting permits the world to pull back from the nuclear brink, we will have reason to rejoice.