2 quotes offer guidance in Trump-Kim negotiations

March 21, 2019

As the world watches the mercurial interactions between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, two famous quotes, made a half-century apart, offer some guidance. The earlier quote, “Peace in our time” was made in 1938 by Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The later quote, made by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, was “Trust but verify.”

“Peace in our time” was uttered after Chamberlain returned from meeting with Hitler to sign a treaty to avoid war. Germany had annexed Austria earlier that year and planned to seize part of Czechoslovakia soon. The British feared they would be attacked but a signed agreement would protect them. Chamberlain was given a hero’s welcome on his way to report his success to the king, but the agreement proved worthless.

President Reagan talked about “Trust but verify” when negotiating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev. Interestingly, “Trust but verify” comes from an old Russian proverb. “Don’t buy a pig in a poke” conveys the same meaning, but it wouldn’t have the same international clout.

These two expressions offer some lessons during the ongoing U.S.-North Korean nuclear negotiations. Reagan’s message is more optimistic and implies that, with appropriate guidelines, there is a way to make sure that, even with a dictator, what you have agreed to can be enforced. However, the 1938 message has become a reminder that peace agreements are often not worth the paper on which they are written. However, this year, President Trump has decided to withdraw from the INF.

Shortly after President Trump’s inauguration, he began tweeting negative statements and personal insults about Kim. This was the era of “Rocket Man” name-calling and statements such as “They (North Korea) will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Not to be outdone, Kim responded with, “Whatever Trump might have expected, he will face results beyond his expectation. ... I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.” In early 2018, the two leaders were foolishly tweeting who had the biggest and best nuclear button.

When it looked darkest in the U.S.-North Korea relationship, just like it did between Britain and Germany in 1938, a Trump-Kim thaw crept in via South Korea’s hosting the Winter Olympics. By March 2018, Trump said, “Now there is a good chance that Kim Jong Un will do what is right for his people and for humanity. Look forward to our meeting.”

This led to the warm and friendly Singapore meeting between Trump and Kim in June 2018. The two men signed an “agreement committing to the ‘building of a lasting and robust peace regime’ on the Korean peninsula.” It included a statement “promising to work for complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” and Trump reported that “I believe that he’s going back and will start it virtually immediately.” For a while, all looked good.

Fast-forward to 2019. Reports say that some North Korean nuclear launch sites began rebuilding before the summit meeting on Feb. 27-28. Recently, a top-level North Korean official said, “Personal relations between the two supreme leaders are still good and the chemistry is mysteriously wonderful.” But she also noted, “I want to make it clear that the gangster-like stand of the U.S. will eventually put the situation in danger.”

Defusing differences between the U.S. and North Korea are vital. Fire and fury are bad options for all. Yet, we must remember that “Peace in our time” must be tempered with “Trust but fully verify.”

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.