A Change in the NoKo Narrative

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“If I have to say I’m sitting on a stage with Chairman Kim and that gets us to save 30 million lives — it could be more than that — I’m willing to sit on the stage.” It’s hard to argue with President Donald Trump’s logic regarding his summit last week with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Certainly, smiles and photo ops are much better than saber rattling. So we congratulate Trump on his historic meeting.

And we join the world in support of the planned objectives of the meeting: to lead to a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and an end to the state of war there. Nonetheless, we hoped for more than the terse statement coming from the summit, in which the two leaders agreed to begin a diplomatic process to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Short on specifics, it didn’t commit to the “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization that the United States has so clearly and vocally demanded in the past. And the post-hoc argument that the more specific formula is implicit in what the two leaders announced, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested, just doesn’t wash.


Still, we join those who see the summit as a step forward, and we are encouraged by it. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), for instance, called it “a positive step in de-escalating tensions between our countries, addressing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and moving toward a more peaceful future.”

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who visited North Korea in 2014, said he saw something new this time around — a letting go of time-honored narratives of the conflict. “It struck me how stuck on their narrative they were and how stuck we were on our narrative,” he said of that earlier visit, “and emblematic of that were the talking points that I was assigned to recite to the North Koreans, the first line of which was, ‘You must denuclearize before we’ll talk to you.’


“The only way this narrative was going to change was if the bigger partner, meaning the United States, changed it,” added Clapper, “and President Trump, I think to his credit, has done that.”

That shake up came with some collateral damage to our ally South Korea, as Trump called off planned joint military exercises without first alerting Seoul. That seems to be a relatively modest price to pay for the possibility of a peaceful resolution, but it remains to be seen whether the decision will place South Korea at a long-term disadvantage with Pyongyang.

On balance, even though the summit appeared to be more form than substance, it was still the first time that an American president sat down with a North Korean leader. Just a few weeks ago they were taunting each other with threats of war. The fact that they were able to move from taunts to words of peace is itself an accomplishment.

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