Commentary: Will the Trump-Kim Summit Yield an Agreement That Is Cosmetic or Consequential?

If an agreement is reached between US President Donald Trump and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) Chairman Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, it would certainly be a great leap forward not only in terms of US-North Korea relations, but also in terms of establishing true global peace and security. Smart money says both Trump and Kim will come through for their people, and the essence of an agreement as initially desired will be put together. The world should wish them well.

If some agreement is reached between US President Donald Trump and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea  (North  Korea) Chairman Kim Jong-un when they meet February 27-28, 2019, in Hanoi, the hope is that it will be more consequential than cosmetic. Since his first meeting with him in Singapore, Trump has been thinking through a new type of partnership with Kim that would be largely economic, and certainly serve the interests of the US and its regional allies. What he has also been doing, however, is creating the circumstances in which the entire world could begin to think well of North Korea and consider how to work well with it. Hopefully, Kim has been preparing his people for a big change, a new path forward. Some observers have demanded to see tangibles, commenting specifically that there are no signed documents agreeing to any plan of action with concrete steps. The reality is that on this monumental undertaking, change will take time. One might refer those impatient observers to the words of the Greek Stoic philosopher of Ancient Rome, Epictetus, which explained: “No thing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”

What Trump wants in return for a prospective partnership is the same prize that was at the root of his decision to talk with Kim: denuclearization, the end of long-range missile development, the continued return of US remains from the Korean War, and dependability. In exchange, Kim would be assured that economic pressure to include sanctions would be mitigated, and a robust path toward economic renewal, backed by the experience of Trump and the largess of the US would be initiated.

Accepting that has most likely been tough for the North Koreans on many levels. The enormous uplift and national pride, the sense of power and control, that comes with possessing nuclear weapons and the means to use them, elevates their importance in Pyongyang. To that extent, resistance to Kim’s effort could have been expected from many senior officials. Certainly, Kim is well equipped to cope with stubborn resistance to his new efforts in his own way. However, quite different from resistance to a deal, but still threatening enough to it, would be almost inherent lack of desire in Kim or any other official in Pyongyang to be “subsumed” by Washington just to gain advantages or considerations being offered. It must always be remembered that the North Korean government is authoritarian in nature and underpinned by a revolutionary movement. It will be reluctant to trust and slow to accept change. There would unlikely be a desire to integrate with what North Koreans may have for so long demonized as a Western-led international order.

It would be a mistake to believe that reaching an agreement would be seen by North Koreans as a means to acquire some sense of affirmation. For the North Koreans, particularly members of the Workers’ Party of Korea, affirmation can only result from loyalty to Kim, to country, and adherence to revolutionary ideals. That all lies deep within. Reaching an agreement would find greatest acceptance among North Koreans as a decision driven by revolutionary impulse. Additionally, North Koreans would want to know what they might create as a result of an economic revival will rightfully belong to them alone. There would be joy in knowing that whatever they might build would be the product of their own hands, not something given to them or done for them by external agents. Support from Trump must be viewed as being actuated by his humanism, and not negatively perceived as a cloaked manipulation or a quest for US dominance. As noted in Pensées, the collected works of 17th century French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal: “We are generally the better persuaded by the reasons we discover ourselves than by those given to us by others.”

What may also prove challenging for Pyongyang, if an agreement is reached, will be exercising the restraint required when working within the international order. The parameters of of bilateral and multilateral agreements, rules, regulations, and procedures, will need to be obeyed. Pyongyang should not equate using restraint as surrendering control. Rules, regulations, and procedures both established and understood in the international order, allow for sense of certainty, assurance, and safety. If anything, control resides in Pyongyang’s ability to make the decision to enter and to remain in the global economic fray as a genuine player. What is being presented is an authentic opportunity for North Korea to choose to be something other than a stranger to the rest of the world.

Given the great economic and financial benefits expected of a Trump-Kim deal, the question would likely remain in Washington on whether the life condition of the North Korean people would be changed by steps taken by it. Only Kim would be able to decide that. The best hope Washington might have on the matter would be that Kim will accept with “revolutionary zeal and patriotism” that the transformation of the country should touch all levels of North Korean society. Interestingly, if Kim follows through on a deal with Trump, the economic effort could very well be viewed as the greatest attempt to take DPRK’s Revolution to new heights since the Chollima Movement initiated by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, decades ago.

If Trump and Kim reach an agreement in Hanoi, it would certainly be a great leap forward not only for the US and North Korea, but also in terns of establishing true global peace and security. The world should wish them well. China, Vietnam, and Mongolia have gone through similar, yet respectively unique, economic transformations. If some written accord is not reached by the two leaders at the summit, there will be other opportunities to meet. However, if everything goes thoroughly bad at the meeting and this mighty diplomatic effort collapses, both leaders will face a dilemma that could take two forms. One may include cobbling together an agreement to maintain some semblance of the status quo. The other may be to go war. The latter is certainly far more distressing than the former, as it may result in the loss of millions of lives. Smart money says both Trump and Kim will come through for their people, and the essence of an agreement as initially desired will be put together. In his work, Meditations, the renowned Ancient Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, provides apt marching orders for Trump and Kim: “Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then, do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy.”