Parker column: Of agents and hostages
WASHINGTON — There he was, the president of the United States, greeting the three American hostages who had just stepped back on U.S. soil after being released by North Korea, and Donald Trump couldn’t help himself.
“It’s very early in the morning,” he noted to reporters. “I think you probably broke the all-time-in-history television rating for 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Of course, he did.
The freed hostages, who had spent from one to three years in labor camps, must have felt like they had landed on Pluto. Still, they seemed happy. They were free, after all. And, big bonus: Melania was there, too.
My first thought when I saw the first lady, I confess, was: hostage exchange. But then I remembered how delighted she had seemed sitting next to Barack Obama at Barbara Bush’s funeral, smiling and laughing. And, I thought, nah, there’s still a chance she might see her husband’s predecessor again.
Living in North Korea isn’t exactly a vacation, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to Trump. A month ahead of his summit with Kim Jong Un, Trump lauded the North Korean leader for his generosity, hospitality and awesome niceness.
“And he was nice in letting them go before the meeting,” said Trump. “I mean, frankly, we didn’t think this was going to happen, and it did.”
And do we wonder why it happened? When it comes to unstable dictators seeking attention and approval from an unstable president, who can claim to divine motivations or predict outcomes? History isn’t of much help with Kim, nor are assurances, or the lack thereof, from North Korean officials.
Do we really believe that Kim will give up his nukes? Asia experts are skeptical. Bonnie Glaser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies has said that the North Koreans “have still said nothing to indicate that they are willing to give up their nuclear weapons.”
Whatever happens before or after this historic summit, it’s the first between a current North Korean leader and a sitting U.S. president. Trump legitimately, if potentially briefly, gets to enjoy this anticipated breakthrough as a seminal event in his administration. After last year’s contest of crazy talk between these two showboaters, Trump can rightfully boast that his tough rhetoric and intense pressure helped lead to the also-historic recent meeting between North and South Korea.
North Korea rejects any such notions. In a toast to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to Pyongyang, the director of North Korea’s United Front Department said, “We have perfected our nuclear capability. It is our policy to concentrate all efforts into economic progress. … This is not the result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside.”
What else would a spokesman say?
Trump, meanwhile, has bragged that he had done what Obama couldn’t in getting the hostages released. Then again, it’s hard to release someone who hasn’t been taken hostage yet. Two were arrested after Obama’s watch, which would mean during Trump’s.
Also, it was during Trump’s presidency that 22-year-old university student Otto Warmbier was returned to the U.S. in a coma after 17 months in a North Korean prison — and died a few days later. On balance, this would seem to diminish somewhat Trump’s bragging rights, at least out of respect for Warmbier’s parents, who, one imagines, might have suffered a little upon seeing the healthier hostages return home when their son had no such happy ending. Warmbier apparently had been so severely beaten for the crime of trying to remove a government sign as a souvenir that he was doomed.
Trump being Trump, the president was able to put that ugly episode behind him, distort the facts, and boast about something that wasn’t true in the run-up to his face-to-face with Kim, a fateful meeting of potentially portentous consequences. Or not.
If Kim really does want to join the civilized world, restore his economy, feed his people and make nice with his neighbors — and if Trump succeeds in effectively securing peace in the region — then he will deserve one of the biggest nonmilitary parades any century has ever seen. The media will fill the streets with champagne and shatter the sky with air horns, while thousands of women converge on the Mall to toss their pink kitty hats into a bonfire that will burn until 3 o’clock in the morning.
Then, and only then, Trump will have earned the peace prize — and more. And he can stand before the world and proudly proclaim that he has finally reached his goal. No one will ever surpass his ratings on this day, on this night, ever.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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