Every week brings another major story that gets lost in our volatile news cycle. Consider widespread reports that North Korea is continuing to develop its nuclear program.
The news is not surprising. Ever since the world got a hint that North Korea wanted a nuclear program, first obtaining necessary materials and machinery, then experimenting with nuclear power and bombs, finally creating missiles to carry these weapons, there has been a predictable disconnect about the meaning.
The big concern was that the leaders of North Korea would use those weapons in a suicidal attack on South Korea, Japan or elsewhere. Nobody thought that the North would survive the retaliation with much of its population, buildings or land intact. Those who studied the regime and talked to defectors saw a much more subtle effort, a quest by the ruling family to remain in power by showing North Koreans how important they were.
The nuclear threat made the world pay attention so there was little motivation to stop testing missiles or developing weapons. The United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia held talks with representatives of North Korea about removing nuclear weapons from the peninsula in return for ending sanctions against the North and providing massive amounts of aid to a country where famine had become routine even if it was hard to get verifiable reports.
Over the decades, two elements remained firm. The United States would treat Kim Jong Il and his son, the present leader, Kim Jong Un, the way we treated other ruthless dictators, with cold diplomacy. We also would not even hint that our support for South Korea was wavering or weak, including the determination to hold annual military exercises to show just what might greet those from the North should they attempt any aggression.
How times have changed.
The North Korean press was very happy to display those smiling pictures of Donald Trump shaking hands with Kim Jong Un, treating him with more affection and respect than he offers leaders of several nations we used to consider allies.
And Trump not only decided unilaterally to end the military exercises, surprising both South Korean leaders and our own generals, but he did so using language that you could regularly find in the Pyongyang Times, the official house organ of the North and its ruling family.
So, having given away much that his predecessors held in reserve, the president now has the even harder task of pursuing real diplomacy from the worst disadvantage the west has faced since the two Koreas emerged in the aftermath of World War II.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has his work cut out for him to get a deal as good as the one that President Obama negotiated with Iran to get it to end a nuclear program, an agreement that Trump and his allies have dismissed as terrible.
You don’t have to be an expert in diplomacy or nuclear arms to understand what has happened. All you have to do is remember the old piece of advice, one that Trump has not learned: when you find yourself in a hole the first thing you do is stop digging.