As if we all were fans of pro-wrestling, commentators keep hyping the upcoming smackdown between Donald J. Trump and Kim Jong-un. The contest could come, for example, if Trump tries to pressure Kim not to test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload to American territory.
After Kim in his New Year’s address boasted that his military was in the “final stages” of preparation for such a test, Trump was quick to tweet his initial response: “It won’t happen.” That challenge gave Kim pause, right?
Maybe not. Kim’s nuclear preparations have continued apace.
Whatever the actual agenda turns out to be, commentators definitely have a point that as a pair of well-publicized celebrities Trump v Kim will be a classic matchup.
But come on, let’s get serious. Statecraft, when it involves the world’s number one superpower and an upcoming nuclear wannabe, is defined by more serious, less superficial considerations.
Isn’t it? After all, virtually every commentator agrees that among the possible outcomes of the coming contest is a new Korean War, deadlier than the original.
In particular, we need to talk about negotiating ability. Trump, after all, is 70 years old and the author of a bestselling book that touts his negotiating skills, The Art of the Deal. Can’t he be counted on to wipe the negotiating table with his 33-year-old adversary and seal the victory by blotting his signature with the kid’s Mao suit?
Let’s try to imagine how the new US president will handle matters. First, maybe he’ll scare the bejesus out of his antagonist with a daring display of brinkmanship. Visualize the North Korean supreme leader turning pale and slipping out of the room to avoid wetting his pants as he contemplates the booming “Or Else” delivered by the master negotiator.
Once he realizes that Trump, tweeting vile insults and threats, may really be crazy enough to turn North Korea into a sea of fire, even with the strong risk of getting the South Korean population wiped out in return, Kim may be able to summon only enough breath to mumble, “Mercy! Have mercy!”
And then, after he’s agreed to the terms of what he believes to be the deal, Kim may be confronted with the top secret Trumpian weapon: Alternative Facts. Nothing is as it seemed. Nothing! Nothing!
But wait. Aren’t those precisely the negotiating tactics that North Koreans working on behalf of three generations of Kim rulers have been using against Americans for these past seven decades?
In 1968, for example, an American admiral, on behalf of President Lyndon B. Johnson, demanded the return of the naval vessel USS Pueblo, which North Korea had captured in international waters. His North Korean army counterpart replied:
“Our saying goes, ‘A mad dog barks at the moon.’ . . . I cannot but pity you who are compelled to behave like a hooligan, disregarding even your age and honor to accomplish the crazy intentions of the war maniac Johnson for the sake of bread and dollars to keep your life. In order to sustain your life you probably served Kennedy, who is already sent to hell. If you want to escape from the same fate of Kennedy, who is now a putrid corpse, don’t indulge yourself desperately in invective.”
Just who is it who’s crazy like a fox? North Korea, never having given up the Pueblo, continues to show the prize off to schoolchildren and tourists.
Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway may have invented the term alternative facts, just the other day, but she certainly didn’t invent the concept. Just ask any graduate of the North Korean school system who started the Korean War in 1950 (the US and South Korea, of course), who won that war in 1953 (North Korea, of course) and which country since then has provided a paradise for its citizens (North Korea, again!)
Oddsmakers will be taking into account the two men’s experience. Young as he is, Kim has been running his country for five years; Trump, only a few days. The new president, in case he’s thinking – as he suggested during the campaign, before having a chance to soak up much in the way of policy advice – that he would meet Kim mano a mano, may want to reconsider and get some help.
Veteran Asia news correspondent Bradley Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.