The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Peace in Korea and the Trump Paradox

So, North Korea and South Korea are discussing an official peace treaty to end the Korean war; the two countries have only been under an armistice. Kim Jong Un has met with his South Korean counterpart and has made noises about ending North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for guarantees of peace.

It appears that the move to meet with Trump is still on and will probably happen.

When I wrote about this previously, a lot of people thought it was impossible because Trump is incompetent.

But it’s steaming ahead, though not yet guaranteed.

Which leads us to the Trump paradox: He won the primary and the election, yet he’s incompetent? He lived like a very rich man, even if his business is deeply dubious. He got most of what he wanted from life.

And he may get a Korean peace deal, something no President since the Korean war has been able to achieve (or perhaps didn’t want to achieve–in which they were wrong).

So what is competence? If you crush all your primary opponents and win the Presidency are you incompetent?

Well, yeah, about some things. Clearly Trump is incompetent in a lot of ways. But I recall an interview I read with Bannon (behind a paywall I can’t get past right now) in which the interviewer said to Bannon: “If you could get even Trump elected, could you get me elected,” and Bannon said (paraphrased): “No dude. Trump was a blunt instrument. He was able to do rally after rally, speech after speech, like a machine, far more than Clinton could do. For that sort of thing he had endless energy.”

In other words, at rallies and in whipping up crowds, Trump was the amazing energizer bunny of presidential candidates.

People keep underestimating Trump. The Clinton campaign went so far as to do their best to help him win the primary, assuming that he’d be easy to crush in the general.


If a Korean peace treaty is signed while Trump is President, let alone if Kim gives up his nukes, that will be a great accomplishment.

Of course it could well be bullshit. It could fall apart. But we’re now closer than we have been in almost 70 years.

We could use a little more incompetence like this.

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  1. Heliopause

    Perhaps the paradox here is that it takes an incompetent (maybe more accurate to say he’s politically naive) to make peace with North Korea. Not being fully aware of the deep doctrinal requirement of elite Washington that official enemies be stationed at strategic points around the globe he has blundered into the completely obvious solution to this endless conflict; some degree of denuclearization/demilitarization in exchange for a guarantee of continued existence for the regime. Everyone with half a brain has known for decades that it’s either this, endless stalemate, or an apocalyptic invasion and occupation of the peninsula.

    Our elites prefer the endless stalemate, and I have a hunch that as the unacceptable danger of peace gets closer and closer Trump’s advisors will find a way to derail it. Let’s hope not.

  2. People are multifaceted , have split personalities, and their aptitudes are not evenly meted out.
    So President Trump is both competent and incompetent at the same time—depending on whatever tasks he’s attempting to carry out.

  3. Ed

    The North has offered only to close their nuke test site, which is dangerously close to imploding anyway. Pretty smart: offer to give up something you can’t wait to get rid of. That’s a far cry from anything really substantive on nukes.

  4. Strangefate

    Of course Trump isn’t incompetent. This is just that common American (or maybe it’s universal I don’t know) belief that people are only one faceted and can always be summed up in a word or two. He’s a loud mouthed ignorant a-hole, all by choice, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t able to get things done. In fact those sorts of people often possess the kind of single minded bullheadedness and boundless energy that gets results, bad as well as good.

    That all said, there’s also the simple fact the United States has never wanted peace with Korea. This is true for almost all our official enemies. Few if any nations want to be on a hostile footing with the wealthiest most militarized and vindictive country in the world. Our leadership class on the other hand enjoys having a number of boogeyman and badguys on tap for a whole host of reasons that do us, the average citizen, very little good and plenty of harm. I doubt very many of our elites will be happy if this actually happens. I expect a lot of kicking and a huge uptick in anti-Trump rhetoric should peace talks appear likely to go forward.

  5. NR

    North Korea doesn’t have a nuclear program to give up anymore. Their test site collapsed and isn’t usable anymore.

    Other accounts have stated that upwards of 200 people were killed in the collapse, which could be most or all of the scientists they have capable of working on a nuclear program. That’s the reason they’re pursuing peace now, not because of Trump. They’ve lost their biggest deterrent.

    Now if Trump gets through this process without screwing it up, I will give him some credit for that, but let’s not pretend this was anything but an extremely fortunate coincidence for this to happen while he’s in office.

  6. Hugh

    What’s different is that Kim brought things to a head. He forced the US to consider military action. At the same time, you had a very different change in leadership in South Korea following scandals which allowed the opposition in. In China, you have the ascension of Emperor Xi and a corresponding interest in finishing off old business. This made possible real and significant sanctions and a wake up call meeting between Xi and Kim. All this was baked in. What Trump has added is *surprise* mostly rhetoric, and even a lot of this has been contradictory and unhelpful, –as in undercutting the Iran nuclear deal while trying to get a similar one with North Korea.

  7. Webstir

    I’m confused. How is this to Trump’s credit and not Moon Jae-in?

  8. Dan

    What Webstir said! People are giving Trump too much credit (considering he hasn’t even had his own meeting with North Korea yet) for what was a long-running, grassroots South Korean campaign to reduce tensions plus the first president in over a decade who wasn’t an anti-DPRK hardliner.

  9. NR

    Webstir: The reality is that a lot of complex factors have led to this point, including the destruction of North Korea’s nuclear testing facility, the likely loss of many od their nuclear scientists, the Chinese abandoning them, dwindling food reserves, an effective trade blockade, and a more compassionate South Korean President.

    There will always be those who try to give Trump credit for everything good that happens, though. (I’m not saying Ian falls into this category, though I do think he often lets his intense dislike of Obama influence his perceptions of Trump).

  10. There have been comments that Moon Jae-in is not a normal South Korean politician. It seems like what happened in Cali in 2003 and the US in 2008 happened there: the previous big boss was such a terrible screw-up that politics went crazy and an unusual person broke past the gatekeepers.

  11. Dale

    Webstir, I agree with you. From what I’ve read, Trump and the U.S. had nothing to do with this. If anything, the two Koreas have realized that the U.S. is the real rouge nation and they are working at having nothing to do with us. Do you blame them?

    I no longer have any idea what the U.S. stands for. Do you?

  12. Seattle Resident

    To a certain extent I do agree with @Webstir that the possibility of military action from the US against South Korea, thanks to Trump’s sabre rattling, which would threaten it with a ballistic missile shower from the North that would potentially kill hundreds of thousands and turn Seoul into a pile rubble forced Moon’s hand to proactively pursue some kind of peace deal that, even if North Korea kept its nukes (and I believe it will keep more or less its present stockpile in any future deal), will maintain some kind of peaceful coexistence between the two countries.

    I don’t believe that Trump will strike a deal that will involve NK giving up the present arsenal of nukes, for I believe that Kim wants to be recognized as a strong respected world leader on more or less an equal footing with that of other major powers and having the nukes protects him from betrayal and attack from the U.S. (not that we’ll have the stones to attack him with PLA divisions as well as nukes in NK.) Besides, could you see a closed society like NK consenting to an inspection regime to insure that he wasn’t cheating?

    If we strike a deal that frees Americans from captivity in NK, that would be a good silver lining. And expect Trump and the corporate media to hail him as a great negotiatior.

  13. someofparts

    When Kim Jong Un got a meeting and deliberate public acknowledgment from China, I figured that pretty much wrapped up the ball game. I wouldn’t expect Americans to lay a metaphorical finger on North Korea if doing so means facing blowback from China.

    Speaking of things Trump is getting done while his opposition struggles to find him on their radar, I saw this at Tom Dispatch last night –

  14. AB

    Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize, says South Korea’s Moon

    SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Moon Jae-in said U.S. President Donald Trump deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the standoff with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, a South Korean official said on Monday.

  15. V

    I’m confused. How is this to Trump’s credit and not Moon Jae-in?

    Exactly correct; it isn’t!.

  16. Sid Finster

    For what it’s worth, the NK leadership would be fools to take any peace deal.

    If we have learned nothing else from Syria, Iraq, and Libya, to name a few recent examples, it is that the United States cannot be trusted, or negotiated with from anything other than a position of strength.

  17. Is Trump incompetent? I’m not sure. But golly, is Hillary Clinton a special level of incompetent. She was an incompetent Senator, an incompetent Secretary of State, and a riotously incompetent presidential candidate. She was even an incompetent First Lady! How do you mess THAT up?

  18. Chiron

    Hard to imagine unification happening, also hard to imagine US Military leaving the peninsula.

  19. Willy

    Dennis Rodman, Moon, and the Kim Jung-un impersonator guy also want a piece of the credit too. These days the secret to one’s success is to bombastically take credit for any and all successes even remotely near you. But when there’s been failure, always have a scapegoat handy. Finally, one must repeat repeat stuff like “No collusion, No collusion…” whenever there’s a “witchhunt” going on, which should always be blamed on the handy scapegoat.

  20. different clue

    @Jack Parsons,

    2008 was certainly an unusualness-opportunity year in American presidential politics. And Obama was certainly good at playing an unusual politician-person on TV. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a dirty double-crossing rat upon taking the Oath of Office. Of course there were signs of his dirty double-crossing ratness even before the election. Some people like Adolph Reed and others saw and predicted what a rat Obama would be, based on what a rat he really always was.

    2016 was another year for unusualness in presidential politics. And this time we really did elect an unusual president. Some would even say “not normal”. In fact, some even DO say “not normal”.
    They say it all the time.

  21. bruce wilder

    as Notorious Pat has it:

    by what standard is Trump incompetent?

    So much of Trump Derangement Syndrome revolves near total ignorance about what the political establishment has been doing the last twenty years it is really difficult to know what to say to someone who purports to think Trump colluded with Russia to get elected.

    I read a book about the nature of incompetence by a noted psychologist once — he gave mostly military examples — smart, given that losing a war is generally clear-cut, and losing a battle often is; clarity as to outcomes makes it easier to be clear about process and its consequences. The bulk of the American population have been losing a class war for 30 years and most people seem barely aware such a war has taken place, let alone the part played by figures like Hillary Clinton in foreign or domestic policy. Every stupid, irrelevant detail of the political process is known, but the outcomes are overlooked, or rather the consequences are felt without anyone acknowledging them as consequences of policy.

    The only “consequences” of policy are those “intended” by neoliberal policy: wars against terror that keep us safe and tax cuts that create jobs.

    Trump is vulgar and authoritarian in a casual way. Obama was elegant and authoritarian and that makes all the difference for people to whom politics is essentially inconsequential theatre, which is after all how it is treated in the political media.

  22. Hugh

    I think what Xi told Kim was that it was time to make a deal. The Chinese would not intervene even if the US nuked the North. They would be furious about the refugees and the radioactivity, but they would not intervene. That’s just how great power policy works. North Korea is not worth China going to the wall for. That said, China with the US could be a guarantor of North and South Korean territorial integrity, and that would eliminate the Libyan scenario. We would get denuclearization and the North would get the US-China guarantee, a peace treaty, an effective end to sanctions, and aid. I would not hold my breath on reunification. While there might be some romantic attraction for the idea among older South Koreans, I think younger South Koreans aren’t so attached. The costs would be astronomical and that does not even begin reconciling such radically different political systems.

  23. Webstir

    I think you may be giving that BBC source a little more credit than it deserves. This source from the U.S. Korea Institute at John Hopkins makes convincing arguments to the contrary:

    They’re meeting your source, and raising.

  24. Ché Pasa

    Moon was elected on a platform that included peace and reconciliation with the North. His moves to encourage and enable peace and reconciliation have been consistent and not necessarily in concert with the belligerence of Trump and the United States. Moon is doing what he set out to do, virtually regardless of the United States.

    Kim responds to Moon positively. They hold their summit and announce parameters for a long term process of regional peace, denuclearization, family unity, diplomatic and economic contact and consultation, and ultimately reunification. All of which was part of Moon’s program wrt the North from the outset of his administration. For its part, the North has long expressed similar sentiment, though it has often been rebuffed or met with hostility from the South with the active complicity of the United States.

    With Moon, Kim may believe that finally there is someone in office in Seoul who can and will become a reliable peace-partner. And for Moon, Kim may be the long-sought Northern partner for peace. Certainly that’s what it looks like, and Koreans seem to be eager for the negotiations to proceed and succeed.

    I understand China and the United States are parties to any eventual peace deal because of the nature of the armistice. But otherwise they are not (or shouldn’t be) directly involved in any negotiations between North and South.

    Trump has shown himself to be interested in dominance, not peace. So far, Kim and Moon have been able keep him happy enough along the way while pursuing their own objectives. It’s an open question whether that can be sustained over a long enough term for them to achieve peace on the Korean peninsula. If a meeting between Kim and Trump occurs (I’m still dubious) it will be fraughtful if for no other reasons than Trump’s instability and the warmongering of his advisers.

    On the other hand, so long as Kim keeps his own wits about him — he seems capable — and Moon continues flattering Trump’s ego — he’s more than capable — what’s to worry, right?

  25. jonst

    Willy wrote: “. These days the secret to one’s success is to bombastically take credit for any and all successes even remotely near you”. Yeah, its not like we ever seen, or been exposed, to politicians, and most humans, doing that (bobabstically taking credit) before. Nah, this is of recent vintage…circa since Trump got elected.

    I also like the way few knew a damn thing, even a tiny damn thing, about North Korea before…and now everyone has informed opinions. Ain’t life grand. A short learning curve.

  26. The Stephen Miller Band

    This is a HUGE DEFEAT for America and America has Trump to thank for it. America, historically since WWII, has used its Diplomacy as Soft Glove Coercion to maintain its Expanding Hegemony.

    This marks the End of an Era. The two Koreas came together without America to intermediate the Symbolics of the Deal. America was nowhere to be seen at the Symbolic Ceremony and was actually Taken By Surprise as to the Particulars.

    Think Carter and the Camp David Accords. This is 180 degrees from that as far as Structure & Optics & Control are concerned.

    Maybe there’s a new term for it.

    Inverted Diplomacy.

    Was it prompted by Trump? Of course it was, but it was purely serendipitous. There was no Rhyme or Reason to Trump’s compulsions.

    He was, and is, the necessary serendipitous perturbation necessary for this Monumental Event to take place. And now that it has, the World now knows that a World without American Diplomacy is not only possible, but preferable.

    China has played this well.

  27. edmondo

    Trump makes peace in Korea so he can start a nuclear conflagration in Iran instead. Bibi gets what Bibi wants.

  28. bruce wilder

    Trump’s struggle is not with Xi or Kim; Trump’s struggle is to escape the constraints of U.S. domestic politics, including the paralyzing presumptions of the foreign policy establishment and the media-industrial complex that generates so much propaganda (and really stupid mind-numbing propaganda at that). Trump is really, really good at manipulating U.S. politics thru the manipulation of that propaganda machine.

  29. Hugh

    Just a reminder, but Trump does not do policy. There’s no plan, no staff to manage and execute it even if there was one. He’s like the ball in a pinball machine, lots of motion, no direction.

  30. realitychecker

    @ jonst

    ” A short learning curve.”

    A moments pause, to appreciate your mastery of the ironic. 🙂

  31. realitychecker

    @ bruce wilder

    I submit that it pays to keep in mind the fact that all the ‘money in politics’ we keep hearing about from the media-industrial complex, eventually winds up in the coffers of those same media entities, in the form of payment for negative advertising.

    Explains a lot, IMO. Just funny how nobody ever seems to say it out loud.

    (Extra audience for violent conflict coverage is gravy on the biscuit lol.)

  32. different clue

    Of course, on the Trumpadoodle downside, Trump is preparing to take the US out of the nuclear technology restraint deal with Iran and several major EUropean countries who are also parties to the deal (JCPOA) Whether China-Russia are parties to the deal or merely approve of it . . . I don’t know.

    Anyway, Sic Semper Tyrannis has felt this upcoming Trump’s leaving-of-the-deal is worth a post and thread. Here it is.

    One can only hope that the EUropeans who say they want to keep to the deal can make keeping to the deal so utterly lucrative for Iran that the IranGov will keep to the deal with the EUropeans so far as EUrope is concerned. If the IranGov can swallow its pride and act with chill dispassionate strategic vision, and if the EUropeans can do likewise; the deal between All The Parties Minus U.S. will continue, with Iran and EUropean companies both getting rich and richer and the US sulking and pissing outside the tent. If Iran and the EUropean parties to the deal can keep the deal after Trump takes the US out of the deal, the UN will not agree to restore the sanctions it had applied up to this time.

    EUrope will be forced to choose between support of the US or closerness to Russia/China/Iran and some distance from US. Perhaps the EUropeans will even decide to dissolve NATO from their end, and set up a strictly EUropean NEATO ( North East Atlantic Treaty Organization) of their own.

    And Trump will have become all he can ever be. His signal achievements ( breaking the Bushes and driving them out of politics and public life for a while, weakening the Clintons and giving us a chance to drive them out of politics and public life for a while, taking the US out of TPP, buying the Coalition Of Lawful Authority time and a chance to defeat the Global Axis of Jihad in Syria) will be all the accomplishments he will ever achieve. The rest will be decomplishments and disasterpieces and catastrofux till the end of his term.

    I guess its time to begin crafting Scott Adams-style verbal headshot killshots and start referring to Trump in such terms as Trashy Trump with his Trashy Twitterrhea dripfeed and so forth.

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