Ours is not an age for reflection, patience and slow-dancing. Our age demands instant gratification. Sooner than that, if possible. Thus the slow-dancing in the latest exchange since the famous Singapore handshake, originating in a hand-carried letter to Pyongyang. The response came back in another hand-carried letter, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continuing as postman.
President Trump tried to send a CD copy of pop singer Elton John’s “Rocket Man” with his letter to Mr. Kim. But the postman never got to see the music-loving leader in Pyongyang, and had to settle for talking to Kim Yong-Chol, a top adviser. He did get a thank-you note, saying their recent handshake in Singapore was “the start of a meaningful journey.” What he didn’t have to say was that the journey will be a long one.
Mr. Trump, ever the diplomat, called the reply a “nice note” and posted it on Twitter. Jaw, jaw is always better than war, war, and the tone of the reply was starkly different from the back-and-forth barbs of the recent past, when the president scorned Mr. Kim as “Rocket Man” and Mr. Kim replied in kind, and flavoring the reply with a little acid. He called the president “mentally deranged a dotard.”
Mr. Trump says he still hopes to get the signed CD to Mr. Kim, so he can listen on his own to the words and music for the first time. Calling him “Rocket Man” was nothing all that bad, just a jocular insult between friends. Nevertheless, jibes and subtle digs continue at the diplomatic level just below the top. When the designated host greeted the secretary of State after a quiet night in the North Korean capital, he asked whether Mr. Pompeo had slept well.
Mr. Pompeo, not expecting a set-up and thinking it was merely a polite morning greeting, replied: “I did. Thank you.” His host then slipped the needle: “But we did have very serious discussion on very important matters yesterday. So thinking about those discussions [we thought] you might have not slept well last night.” Mr. Pompeo responded curtly, “I slept just fine.”
Such are the games diplomats play, and there was more. As Mr. Pompeo left Pyongyang, the North Korean foreign ministry put out a statement calling his visit “regrettable.” The North Korean Foreign Ministry called the U.S. demand for action on certain promises “gangster-like.” Mr. Pompeo, by now in Tokyo, replied with a shot of acid of his own: “If those requests were gangster-like, the world is a gangster, because there was a unanimous decision of the U.N. Security Council about what needs to be done.”
Acid has its uses. The president’s “Rocket Man” remarks led to the June 12 summit. “I have confidence that Kim Jong-un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake,” the president tweeted. “We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea.” For his assigned part, Mr. Pompeo was adamant about the administration’s commitment to achieve “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” on the Korean peninsula.
But a lot still has to happen before the United States can call the mission a success. Achieving the North Korean nuclear threat in North Korea required the work of 25 years, the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation observes, and dismantling the threat will require more time.
Denuclearization as laid out in the Stanford Center report will likely require up to 15 years to accomplish. Arms-control wonks say this “halt, rollback, and eliminate” approach is necessary to enable the United States to reduce and manage risks.
As if the tasks of removing nuclear weapons, halting uranium enrichment, disabling reactors, and closing nuclear test sites aren’t arduous enough, diplomatic hiccups are sure to stall progress on that “meaningful journey.” Perhaps the president counts on the music that soothes the savage beast to erase the memory of the bad old days of early summer, when he and Mr. Kim were trading insults and the president mocked the Rocket Man as “on a suicide mission for himself.”
When Kim Jong-un, sitting all alone on his back gallery in beautiful downtown Pyongyang, sipping a cold one, slips the president’s CD into a player and hears Elton John sing the chorus, “it’s gonna be a long, long time,” he’ll find reassurance on the path to denuclearization on the Korean peninsula. It’s a message for our own fans of immediate gratification. Slow dancing has its uses, too.