Two years after President Trump's infamous tweets, North Korea's Little Rocket Man is still burning out his fuse out here alone. The problem is that Kim Jong Un has more of them, and he seems to be making a point of lighting them up to spite the president who was calling him "terrific" only last fall.
South Korea announced on Thursday that its volatile neighbor had fired two short-range missiles in an apparent test that came days after Kim was seen witnessing other experiments involving rocket launchers and other advanced weapons. Before then it had been a year and a half, some 521 days, since Pyongyang had tested such devices. As Adam Taylor points out in The Washington Post, the tests were not technically a violation of any agreement made between the United States and North Korea because, despite Trump's apparent best efforts, no such agreement exists. But they were very much against the spirit of the conversation that took place between Kim and Trump last summer.
When Trump met with Kim in Singapore in 2018, he was widely derided for confusing grand gestures — the first ever meeting between a sitting American president and the leader of the communist regime in Pyongyang — with actual diplomacy. Photo ops are great and all, but absent an actual binding agreement that limits North Korea's nuclear ambitions we might as well just be sending Dennis Rodman in there again. We could certainly use a rebound after this week.
Trump's ambitions were always worth celebrating. It's easy to argue that holding a meeting between two heads of state doesn't mean much, but if that's so, it's hard to see why this necessary first step has not been taken by any of Trump's predecessors. There is also a good case to be made that between the Mueller investigation and the chaos in his White House the president has not been able to devote enough attention to North Korea — or any important issues. But simply holding a summit was never going to be enough in itself. Diplomacy in the post-war era has always involved television cameras. But behind the indelible images of Nixon in China or Reagan at Reykjavik there are always clever, patient men and women doing the boring and occasionally thankless work of actually making peace.
Diplomacy is impossible without diplomats. Who is Trump's James Baker? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is a trumped-up — no pun intended — Tea Party congressman, an impatient saber rattler. John Bolton is a living meme who owns the libs by breathing, which is not the same thing as, you know, convincing an unstable authoritarian man-child not to shoot missiles in the direction of his neighbors. By all accounts Rex Tillerson was not a good fit for the Trump White House, and John Kelly should have been chased out long before his resignation. The personnel, whoever they are, are not in place and never have been. Maybe they don't exist.
Meanwhile, the news of Kim's belligerence comes amid an apparent breakdown in the trade talks between China and the United States. There are good reasons — moral and economic — for Trump to be recalcitrant on the subject of Chinese imports. But the reality of the situation on the Korean Peninsula is that it will not be resolved by Washington and Pyongyang unilaterally. Any lasting agreement between the two will have to involve China, which will use the American desire for stability in Pyongyang to demand trade-related concessions that Trump appears unwilling to make, at least for now.
Also on the horizon is what will come following America's withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Once again there are arguments to be made in favor of significantly revising this treaty — chief among them them the fact that it has long been possible for Russia to comply with the letter while making a mockery of the spirit of the agreement thanks to the development of weapons technology not covered by the original language. It needs to be replaced, preferably by a new deal that includes not only the United States and the third-world mineral oligarchy that was once one of the world's only two superpowers but also China, the country that has superseded it, and Iran and North Korea as well.
It would be nice to think that America's recent nuclear setbacks are only that — minor speedbumps on the road to a new, lasting peace for the 21st century. But absent our willingness to make serious economic — and probably ecological — concessions, this is unlikely. The future increasingly looks to be one in which Americans can expect either peace or prosperity, but not both. Which will we choose?