When Neville Chamberlain returned from the Munich Conference with Adolf Hitler in September 1938, he believed he had an answer to his primary question. “What does Mr. Hitler want?” was on the mind of the Prime Minister going into the meeting, and it colored all of the proceedings.
The perception was that Germany was wronged in the Versailles Treaty and that Hitler, as the leader, was simply acting in his own nation’s interest. Chamberlain completely neglected the growing body of evidence that Hitler was indeed a psychopath who had his own interests in mind and was simply using Germany as a tool.
Diplomacy is always complicated, but with such people it is even moreso. More than seeking the right answers, it often becomes critical to ask the right questions in the first place.
A comparison between Hitler and Kim Jong-Un of North Korea is never going to be perfect. The situation is completely different in many ways, and the direct threat to the neighboring nations, while equally dire, is hard to compare.
But there is one key characteristic that the two leaders share without any qualifications: both have an absolutely pathological desire for blood and punishment. It goes beyond what is necessary to stay in power, requiring instead that the entire state and its population bend to their will. The psychotic behavior is actually enjoyed.
There is never anything wrong with sitting down and talking between leaders. In this particular case, Kim won something very important simply by meeting with Trump – legitimacy. His ego has been fed by the recognition of the world that he, too, is now a power to be reckoned with. If we are going to ask any question about him at this moment, it would be one that can only be answered by his record: “What will Kim do with his new power?”
That’s where we need to be afraid.
The desire for peace is a good one. The need to talk is critical. But to enter into these talks with a framework that suggests the problem can be solved quickly, with a single stroke, is absolutely crazy. The question, “What does Mr. Kim want?” seemed to be on the mind of Trump through the entire proceedings.
History shows us that this is exactly wrong, and is not the path to peace.
Much has been made about what was given up in this early round of talks. I can’t say for sure how important joint exercises are for the security of South Korea, so I will wait to see how Sec. Mattis and others respond to this. If all that these exercises did was provoke, then they should be stopped. There’s no reason to not show flexibility to the extent it is in your own interest.
But the key question cannot be centered on Kim no matter what. There can be no question that what is in the best interests of nearly everyone in Korea, the region, and the world is for a unified and neutral Korea. Given that long term goal, the small number of people who would lose is a list topped by Kim Jong-Un. What he wants is an utterly irrelevant way of looking at the situation.
Whether it is respect, military aid, or construction of resort hotels does not matter one bit. What matters to the people of North Korea is a full belly and some basic human rights, things that they don’t have.
Very much like Chamberlain, Trump has gone into this whole process looking for a quick-fix and asking the wrong question. We cannot and should not care what Kim wants. To look at the situation from that perspective can only be called appeasement, and we see what that got Neville Chamberlain.