When President Obama negotiated with Iran over its nuclear weapons he was talking to a familiar enemy. Long-time Iranian immigrants numbered well-heeled, learned, people infinitely capable of taking care of themselves once here. Through them, the banking sector, hard-won intelligence, and in light of long, painful, experience, we knew the parameters of Iran’s theocratic political class before we started the talking that led to a deal.
People who think of Iran as a backwater country are mistaken. It’s regressive in its social policy and excessive use of religious sentiments to drive public policy, but not in its economic and physical infrastructure. Tehran’s skyline would do most American cities proud. The lifting of U.S. sanctions and return of the hundreds of billions of dollars we seized from Iran after the Iranian Revolution, a euphemism for coup, are enabling Iran to become what its bombs could never have, a participating member of the body of nations. The plan may yet backfire but not for lack of trying to make the world safer.
Worse of a problem than Iran is the dilemma of North Korea. Kim Jong-un is not a bearded cleric, nor a financial sophisticate of the type that specializes in alternate financial arranging on behalf of an embargoed country. Kim is a Dennis Rodman, Chicago Bulls fan. He likes parades and enjoys his own company above all else. It’s doubtful that Kim reads but none should doubt his power. It could knock the earth off its axis.
The Vietnamese negotiated by committee. So did the Iranians. There are no comparable committees discernable in North Korea. There is only Kim. Offer him the Olympics and he might blow up his arsenal on the 4th of July. Failing that inducement, the U.S. is going to have to figure out what North Korea wants in return for nuclear disarmament. That shouldn’t be so hard. Just across the 54th parallel is a land of plenty filled with urbane and prosperous citizens. Everyone has electricity in South Korea and everyone eats. Seoul is the plastic surgery capital of the world. Surgery to put permanent smiles on the lips of young South Korean women is trendy. The North wants more of the South.
North Korea’s electrical grid is shot; its copper stripped long ago out of the wires. From space, the entire nation is dark at night except for the capital Pyongyang. People in the North worry about starvation. The only thing the country makes seems to be missiles. It might take an entire infrastructure and a humanitarian relief program unseen since the Marshall Plan to secure the peace. The world is going to have to build North Korea a nation, the hardest piece of which will be the manner in which Kim Jong-un is integrated.
At the threshold is a consideration of human rights. The record of North Korea has never made the front pages for its benignity, or adherence to international standards. How tolerant America is willing to be with Kim’s record will be a litmus test of President Trump’s own commitment to human rights. He bombed Syria, he said, because Bashar al-Assad’s gassed babies. How will tolerating North Korea’s sins, and to what extent, square with Trump’s stand in Syria? It’s not an academic question.
The BBC reported, January 18, 2016, that “Mr. Kim made his first public speech as North Korea marked the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Kim Il-sung (his grandfather) on 15 April 2012, praising the ‘military first’ doctrine and vowing the time his nation could be threatened was ‘forever over.’” Mr. Trump has, also, declared that the time for insults and threats to this country is over and he has called for a huge military buildup to put enhanced muscle behind his words. The way these two men wrestle with the needs of the other could be outcome determinative for the world. It will, also, shape the Trump presidency.