Don and the Dictator
How should the media react to Trump’s North Korea deal?
This handout photo taken on Tuesday and released by The Straits Times shows North Korea’s murderous tyrant Kim Jong Un shaking hands with President Donald Trump at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore. Photo: kevin lim/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
By James Freeman
June 12, 2018 3:29 p.m. ET
President Donald Trump seems to have given North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un a media coup and not received much in return—at least not yet. The joint statement signed by the U.S. President and North Korea’s leading thug says that the two countries will seek a lasting peace and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Mr. Trump says he received further disarmament promises beyond the written ones and the world will eventually find out if Mr. Kim fulfills them. In short, the Trump-Kim deal is precisely the kind of vague and well-meaning gesture in foreign affairs that the political left in the U.S. should love.
Tradition holds that such agreements are met with at least respectful coverage in the American media. For example, early in President Bill Clinton’s term the U.S. reached a similar agreement with North Korea’s communist dictatorship.
Twenty-five years ago today, the New York Times published an editorial called, “To Assure a Nuclear-Free Korea.” Given that Mr. Trump was in Singapore this week trying to persuade North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, it’s fair to say that the hopes invested by Times folk in the Clinton deal were not exactly realized. But back in 1993, the newspaper’s editorial board expressed admiration for officials in both the American and North Korean governments :
Deft diplomacy by the Clinton Administration has coaxed North Korea back from the brink. The North had threatened to bolt from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and build nuclear arms. It will now allow routine international inspections of its nuclear sites.
Gaining access to its nuclear waste sites will require further negotiation; that could provide more evidence of how much plutonium North Korea might already have produced. But the resumption of routine inspections is a critical first step toward assuring that the Korean Peninsula is truly nuclear-free.
The agreement is a tribute to sensible officials in Pyongyang who chose the path to prosperity over the road to ruin. It’s also a tribute to cool heads in Washington who refused to overreact to North Korea’s bizarre bargaining behavior.
Along with the tip of the cap to the “sensible officials in Pyongyang,” the Times went on to describe U.S. military exercises with our friends in democratic South Korea as “needlessly provocative.” Of course time would reveal that Washington’s cool heads had wildly underreacted.
This brings us to coverage of this week’s summit. It presents a particular challenge for pundits on the left who normally can be relied upon to become giddy at the prospect of vague peace agreements but also hate Donald Trump. Acutely aware of the dilemma faced by their friends and readers, the staff at the Nation is leading with an article entitled, “You Can Be a Critic of Trump and Still Root for Diplomacy to Succeed in Korea.”
Over at Vox, some commentary trashes the President’s deal. But Jennifer Williams manages to express the traditional media view on the virtue of negotiating with thugs like Kim Jong Un without also deploring his duly-elected counterparty:
It’s far from a peace treaty or a comprehensive agreement to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Nor does it even clarify what each side means by “denuclearization.” As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp has written, that word means very different things to the US and North Korea.
But it’s still progress.
Less than a year ago, Trump was threatening to rain down “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea and Kim was calling Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard” and “carefully examining” plans for a missile strike on US military bases in Guam.
But after a day spent talking, laughing, eating, and strolling leisurely with one another, the two men have “developed a very special bond,” according to Trump.
It’s a stunning turn of events. And while it’s just the beginning of what will likely be a long and complicated negotiating process — one that could break down at any time — it’s certainly a positive start.
Still, Vox is one thing. The New York Times is another. How can Times opinion writers manage to cover the Trump-Kim accord in the spirit of ‘93? No matter the editorial board’s traditional affection for agreements like this one, the paper is now home to a columnist who this week is comparing our President to a Nazi collaborator. Meanwhile another Times columnist advances the idea that Mr. Trump is not just doing harm to our country but trying to “destroy the West.”
The Times editorial board is out now with an editorial and perhaps not surprisingly, the tone is very different from the one offered by the paper in 1993. Under the headline, “Trump Gushes Over North Korea,” readers won’t find any gushing about deft diplomacy or cool heads in Washington. But the piece is more clear-eyed than the one in 1993 while still following Times custom and valuing dialogue with a regime that has hardly changed since invading its southern neighbor in 1950. The Times now offers what might be called muscular liberalism:
After months of venomous barbs and apocalyptic threats of war, the meeting between President Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was unquestionably a relief, with its handshakes and effusive politeness.
Mr. Trump deserves credit for setting in motion a process that for the time being will keep the two adversaries talking to each other. But the statement he signed with Mr. Kim was strikingly spare, with little evidence of any substantial progress despite Mr. Trump’s claim that it was “comprehensive.”
The bitterness of much of the American media toward Donald Trump can be tiresome for many readers. But in this case it may be useful. Members of the press can join many other Americans in demanding a hard bargain for a Pyongyang dictatorship that deserves no other kind.