Monday, May 21, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He issued a commemorative coin, which is actually a huge problem.

This morning, Trump's White House Military Office unveiled its official "challenge coin" commemorating the summit meeting with North Korea. Challenge coins are traditional gifts given by diplomatic or military leaders, especially for participation in significant events. 

Normally uncontroversial, the Trump coin has managed to stir controversy for a number of reasons. It depicts Trump and Kim Jong-un as equals--which has real-world diplomatic overtones. The ruling members of North Korea's hereditary dictatorship have been trying for decades to force the United States to acknowledge them as peers, knowing that this would make it more difficult to act against the regime when necessary.

The coin also refers to Kim by his preferred honorific, "Supreme Leader." Kim inherited this title after his father Kim Jong-il died, and held on to it--as Trump has noted with undisguised admiration--by ordering the assassination of all potential rivals from within the ranks of the North Korean elite. His government is known to engage in any number of brutal forms of human rights abuses, including torture, enslavement, and the punitive rape of women for their family members' political crimes. The United States did not typically (until now) acknowledge the legitimacy of Kim's government by using that title.

But most significantly, the coin "commemorates" a summit that still may not happen. Even Trump is having second thoughts about the wisdom of the meeting he single-handedly brought about. Trump has apparently belatedly realized what everyone else concerned already knew: that Kim has no intention of actually giving up his nuclear weapons, an outcome that Trump promised would be the result. (In fairness to Kim, while Trump claimed that Kim had offered "denuclearization," Kim's own statement on the matter said no such thing.)

Since agreeing to become the first U.S. president ever to dignify the North Korean regime with a summit, Trump has called Kim "very honorable," praised his "excellent" treatment of hostages, and capitulated to Kim's demand that he cancel joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises.

Why does this matter?

  • Even a president as fond of dictators and strongmen as Trump is should have been able to understand why trusting Kim Jong-un to do right by the United States was a bad idea.
  • Diplomacy and foreign policy are too important to screw up this badly, especially where hostile nuclear powers are involved.