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The Meaning of Trump’s Historic North Korean Jaunt, in One Image

Theater, thwarted advisers, and a victory for Kim Jong Un

Dong-A Ilbo/Getty

The symmetry would appear to say it all: the way their bellies slope toward each other, the navels nearly kissing; the idiosyncratic hairstyles that could only be worn by a gaudy showman or a megalomaniacal tyrant (or someone who aspires to be both); the dark suits, the shining shoes, the arms locked in a rigid handshake. These are two men who see themselves reflected in the other—two international pariahs who, while hostile to a free press, understand the media’s love of a gripping performance.

That Donald Trump has destroyed the already fuzzy line between entertainment and politics has been noted ad nauseam, but it’s still not entirely clear what lesson we are to draw from this fact. Segments of the American media, not unlike their brainwashed counterparts in the Hermit Kingdom, were in awe of the spectacle of Trump’s historic visit this weekend to the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone. “In terms of sheer performance, George, this may be the biggest moment of the Trump presidency so far,” ABC’s Jon Karl gushed to George Stephanopoulos.

Karl marveled at the drama Trump had set into motion, with a tweet 32 hours earlier proposing that the two leaders “say hello” at the world’s most fortified border. “The president took a big gamble by issuing the last-minute invitation,” Karl said, “and then he let the cliffhanger play out, as nobody knew whether Kim Jong Un would accept.”

At this stage in the Trump-Kim relationship, however, momentous events seem less like cliffhangers than MacGuffins. While it is true that no sitting American president had previously ever set foot in North Korean territory, it is also true that no sitting American president had ever met face to face with a North Korean dictator before Trump did so in June of 2018, in a much-celebrated summit in Singapore. All that history-making resulted in the complete collapse of follow-up talks in Hanoi in February of this year, as hawks in the White House, led by National Security Advisor John Bolton, apparently got the upper hand. The most tangible result of the great Trump-Kim rapprochement, it turned out, was the reported execution of Kim’s negotiators following their mortifying failure to get a pound of flesh from the Americans.

The latest round of made-for-reality-television diplomacy produced similarly negligible results. Trump gave away an immense symbolic gesture for nothing but a handshake agreement to continue negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program—negotiations that have always seemed destined to splinter over the U.S.’s insistence that Kim eliminate his nukes, and Kim’s insistence that he doesn’t want to end up like Muammar Qaddafi.

Yet one interesting wrinkle has, against all likelihood, emerged: a report in The New York Times that White House officials are now considering “a nuclear freeze, one that essentially enshrines the status quo, and tacitly accepts the North as a nuclear power, something administration officials have often said they would never stand for.” Accepting the reality of North Korea’s fledgling nuclear arsenal has for years been de facto policy for the U.S., which has otherwise managed to live alongside nuclear-armed frenemies like Pakistan and Russia. As I noted in a piece last year, maintaining the status quo—in which the North retains its weapons but doesn’t pose a significant threat to others or collapse upon itself—is the grudgingly favored position of establishment foreign policy officials like Susan Rice.

All of this is anathema to Bolton, who today took the remarkable step of suggesting, via Twitter, that scheming officials within his own White House team had leaked this proposal to the press in an attempt to create a fait accompli:

Why Bolton and his fellow hawk Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have taken the lead in the White House’s belligerent approach to Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, while being iced out of the dovish approach to North Korea’s actual nuclear weapons program, is the subject of much heated speculation. The answer to this riddle might at least partly lie in the photograph above.

There has long been concern that Trump’s penchant for the theatrical could undermine American foreign policy and global security, holding the world hostage to his mercurial turns on the stage. But perhaps it is best thought of as a kind of lever that can be pulled, occasionally, for the greater good, even if that means pleasing the U.S.’s adversaries. In accepting Trump’s invitation, Kim, who likely understands the value of pageantry better than bureaucratic brawlers like Bolton, has figured out that the play’s the thing to capture the attention of the king. It’s no wonder that, while Trump is wearing a scowl, Kim is beaming with what seems to be pure joy.