Commentary: Is Kim Jong Un the Donald Trump of Korea?

I know—you're used to hearing it the other way around.  Remember the line from President Trump's Gridiron dinner comedy set: "I won't rule out direct talks with Kim Jong Un, I just won't. As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that's his problem, not mine."

(Trump's best line of the night, by the way? "Nobody does self-deprecating humor better than I do. It's not even close.")

The "Dictator Donald" meme has been in the media his entire presidency. In fact, a joke he made about China's premiere Xi becoming leader for life sparked hours of commentary about the coming Trump dictatorship. But while the media love it, the notion's never really stuck with voters because totalitarianism and narcissism aren't the same thing.  Donald Trump doesn't want your slavish obedience. He wants your admiration. 

But flip the prism the other way—look at the Trump-like qualities of Kim Jong Un, and the view gets more interesting.

Nicholas Eberstadt of the conservative American Enterprise Institute recently wrote an extensive piece for Commentary magazine about North Korea entitled "The Method In North Korea's Madness." Eberstadt, who's studied North Korea and Asia for decades, begins with an admission rarely seen from pundits: I was wrong.

"Full Disclosure: I am one of those who seriously underestimated North Korea's resilience in the 1990s," Eberstadt wrote. "Twenty years ago, I would have thought it almost unimaginable for the North Korean state to survive to this day."

Everyone knows the story of Communism in the post-Reagan world: It died. Eastern Europe's been liberated, Russia's a Putin-run kleptocracy, China's a hybrid of capitalism and Chinese-style autocracy, etc. Maduro is sticking by his socialist guns in Venezuela—the home of widespread rioting and 13,000 percent annual inflation (no joke).

And then there's North Korea, where the regime is still living like the glory days of the Cold War.  Even better, in fact.

Why was Eberstadt wrong? What did he miss? This is where the "Trump Jong-Un" thesis kicks in. 

Having gone back and looked at his analysis over the past two decades, one thing Eberstadt points to is a Korean concept called "Minjok."

"It's the Korean phrase for 'nationality' or 'race,'" Eberstadt said in an interview Sunday. "North Korea was originally established as a satellite of the Soviet Union, but over time they abandoned Marx and Lenin in favor of an ideology based on this vision of minjok, or national and racial greatness."

Other Communist regimes may have pushed for global liberation from the bonds of capitalism and an international brotherhood of man. Not the Kims.

"Their central issue is the reunification of the Korean race under independent socialist state," Eberstadt says.  "It's a powerful vision," Eberstadt says. "It resonates with many in North Korea, probably even with some of the victims of the regime's violence."

And is it this vision, which might be loosely translated as "Make The Korean Peninsula Great Again" that keeps the Kims in power?

No, Eberstadt says. "It's the machinery and the spirit that animates it. Whatever the Korean people really feel about one day living in a reunified Korea, or Kim's appeal to 'minjok,'—and there's not a lot of public polling in North Korea--what keeps the regime in power is their totalitarian system."

"The DPRK has taken Lenin's and Stalin's police state brutality and bundled it with Asiatic dynastic despotism," Eberstadt says. "It's different from the other Communist regimes established after World War II. And you'll notice it's also the only one still around."

What all this means for the Trump administration as they head into possible negotiations is that there may be key items, like the nuclear program, that Kim can't negotiate away even if he wanted to. Because such a deal would be a betrayal of the vision that animates Kim's powerful supporters.  

It's similar—though at a much more dire and deadly level—to President Trump's position on The Wall. Even if Trump agreed with analysts who say an actual barrier from the Pacific to the Gulf is a waste of resources; that more could be done to prevent illegal immigration through interior enforcement, etc., Trump can't abandon The Wall because of what it symbolizes to his supporters. It's the physical manifestation of his pledge to American greatness.

If Trump abandoned The Wall, it would put his presidency at risk, just as Kim abandoning the North Korean nuclear program could literally put his regime at risk from political forces at home, according to Eberstadt. 

What to do?  Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies says the president should increase the pressure on Kim, not cut deals. "Trump should keep the pressure on North Korea and not be afraid to walk away if real denuclearization is not on offer. If he does that, he might even strike the deal of the century."

But what if that's a deal not even a dictator can make?

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.