Democrat or Republican, conservative or progressive, every United States president in recent history has taken the same approach to North Korea.
Avoid dealing directly with the ruling regime because official recognition is what the family of dictators wants.
Kim Jong Un, like his father and grandfather, exercises control over the nation with a ruthless tendency to kill opponents and a propaganda effort that allows for no doubt that the nation is among the most important in the world, headed by one of the most important people in the world.
Donald Trump has deviated from the traditional approach, relying on his charm and deal-making abilities. Despite abundant evidence that he has fallen into the trap that others easily avoided — that those photos of the two leaders smiling and shaking hands are the public relations coup that North Korean dictators yearned for since the nation was founded — he persists.
This makes the latest troubling news from North Korea even more troubling.
The nation recently conducted tests of several unidentified short-range projectiles into the sea off its eastern coast. North Korea knows that this is a violation of the expectation that there would be no further enhancement of its military capabilities, even if these were not the kinds of missiles that could reach the United States and carry nuclear weapons. They are the kinds that pose a direct threat to other nations in the Pacific and have sent a chill through those in neighboring South Korea, which is very much in the path of such conventional weapons. That’s why South Korea is worried and would like the United States to put more pressure on the regime rather than continuing to make friendly overtures.
The second piece of news is more subtle and more troubling.
The United Nations reported that a disastrous harvest has left North Korea with a drastic shortage of food, one that is lowering the daily rations distributed by the state to almost starvation levels, with even more reductions likely to come in summer and fall, when food reserves are at their lowest.
Previous food shortages have inspired the regime to crack down even harder, fearing that unrest would pose a challenge to its rule. This regime is as cruel, perhaps more cruel, than those it succeeded and there is no incentive for it to give up the one thing that it has identified as crucial to North Korea’s standing in the world; its nuclear arsenal.
So far, Kim Jong Un has managed to outmaneuver the Trump administration on every front, to gain the status it has long desired without having to give up anything in return. In addition to the tests conducted recently, there are regular reports that development of the nuclear weapons program continues unabated.
The situation in North Korea is once again heading toward a crisis, one that previous administrations would have been in a position to exploit. President Trump, however, has already given up the advantage that others had held onto for so long, with nothing to show for it.