Leave it to President Trump to make Kim Jong Un look good.
Kim's North Korea has spent the first few days of the Winter Olympics in South Korea on a clear charm offensive. Both Korean Olympic delegations participated in the opening ceremony together. And Kim's sister Kim Yo Jong, the subject of many breathless headlines in the Western press, traveled to Pyeongchang, where she met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and delivered an invitation to visit Pyongyang and meet her brother.
These are clearly positive developments, despite the embarrassing hyperbole in some corners of the American press. But if North Korea's attempts at friendliness have shown us anything, it's a stark demonstration of the rock-bottom depths to which the presidency of Donald Trump has plunged the international regard of the United States. A literal Stalinist dictator, presiding over a hellish prison state, almost seems like a reasonable statesman by contrast.
The outreach from North Korea has been cautiously welcomed by many South Koreans, though the meetings also inspired protests against potential reunification. No one is more aware of what a dystopian nightmare North Korea is than South Koreans, roughly half of whom live directly in the crosshairs of tens of thousands of artillery pieces that could turn their capital into an ocean of fire in minutes — and that's not even considering Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal.
So why is a potential rapproachement being decently well received in the South? Because Trump — with his grotesquely intemperate rhetoric, including tweets combining barely concealed boasts about the size of his penis with threats of aggressive nuclear war — has consistently ratcheted up conflict with North Korea from the beginning of his presidency, for no reason aside from being an ignorant, belligerent loudmouth.
Worse, his administration appears determined to press for a preemptive strike on North Korea's nuclear facilities. That is reportedly why there is still no ambassador to South Korea, its previous candidate Victor Cha having spoken out strongly against an attack and been withdrawn by the administration. (As John Feffer points out, a nontrivial motivation for such a view could be the fact that the ambassador could easily be killed in a North Korean counterattack.)
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) relayed a particularly disgusting rationale for an American offensive in North Korea, saying that Trump told him that North Korean capability to hit the United States with a nuclear weapon is so unacceptable that starting a full-scale war on the Korean peninsula would be worth it, because they're not Americans. "If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And he has told me that to my face," Graham said on the Today show.
This is not just genocidal racism. It's also a catastrophic error of judgment driven by self-centered chauvinism. North Korea already has a nuclear capability, and American intelligence about the program is notoriously poor. There is a chance they can already land a nuclear weapon on Honolulu or Los Angeles (or even New York City or Washington, D.C.), and the easiest way to incite such a go-for-broke attack is by starting a war of aggression.
This "over there" language articulates well the perspective of many Americans who have become spoiled and overconfident about the use of military force. This country has fought a slew of wars all over the globe over the last century, but has not experienced the wholesale devastation of war fought on its own soil since 1865. To Team Trump, war is a matter of volunteer soldiers (sourced overwhelmingly from the poor and working class) killing foreigners overseas as part of some internal domestic political psychodrama. The idea that a penniless state like North Korea might be able to meaningfully retaliate against American aggression simply can't be conceived by America's large cohort of hysterical nationalists, who insist that any problem can always be solved by the application of violence.
At any rate, South Korea quite literally owes its existence to American troops, and has been one of our closest allies for decades. But when Vice President Mike Pence refuses to stand for the Korean Olympic delegation because it contains North Koreans, the South Korean government sees not just a calculated insult from another boorish American oaf, but the embodiment of an unstable American regime, run by a raving lunatic bent on starting yet another pointless war of aggression, who has nothing but callous disregard about the mountain of Korean corpses he would create by doing so.
Is it any wonder that North Koreans might seize the opportunity to drive a wedge between America and South Korea, or that South Koreans might seriously consider it? North Korea may be a dystopia, but bluster aside, it seems most interested in preserving the status quo, not committing national suicide. That's more than can be said for America's own president.