Trump and Kim Jong Un. Let’s consider the narrative behind the summit. In a movie, it is easy to see when a character does not ring true – when he or she acts in a way contrary to human psychology – in a way that is in conflict with the known facts of the narrative.
Either the character is not properly created by the author or there is more to the narrative than we are currently been shown.
Short version – Trump’s (and Kim’s) behavior regarding the summit is in conflict with their characters. In the real world, characters are not poorly drawn – they are who they are. And discrepancies are indicators that there is more to the narrative that we are seeing.
When I was working as a consultant on narrative structure for the CIA and the NSA, we created a few “What if” scenarios regarding Kim Jong Un, the United States, China, South Korea, and other players in that theater.
Suffice it to say that not only are the international politics among the nations extremely complicated, but the internal politics within the DPRK are far more complicated including powerful regional warlords who are courted directly by China, a class of merchants who support Kim as long as their coffers are filled, a central military structure whose allegiance is capricious, and the equivalent of the Russian oligarchs who control significant wealth and live in luxury while the people (who are successfully indoctrinated into a cult of personality toward Kim) live largely in poverty.
Against this background, and following Trump’s tweet war with Kim over the last year, i.e. “Little Rocket Man” vs. “We will destroy you,” these two leaders came together in a friendly, mutually supportive summit and, according to Trump, agreed to complete denuclearization of North Korea and an end of sanctions, full diplomatic recognition, an end to joint war games, and even a removal of troops by the United States.
By meeting with Kim, one on one as equals, Trump has already given equal status to Kim as the legitimate leader of the DPRK.
Add to this that Trump, positioning himself as peacemaker, has been antagonistic to our allies, and excessively supportive and effusive in his praise and/or unwilling to speak out against strong men and dictators such as Putin, Assad and Xi Jinping.
Now further consider that Trump always acts in his own best interest and has never been known to embrace service to others, altruism, or a keen desire for world peace. Further, while in office so far, he and his family have profited greatly from political decisions made, and allegations such as pay for play with Qatar abound.
If he were a fictional character, Trump might be described as narcissistic, self-aggrandizing, power-hungry, greedy, unbeholding to any code or ethos, crude, rude, bullying, opportunistic, mercurial, capricious, and sly. If one adds the trait, ruthless, these traits describe Kim Jong Un as well.
Those qualities do not support Trump’s nor Kim’s apparent actions in the narrative we are being presented. They do not ring true. So we must ask ourselves, what is the real narrative that we are not seeing – a narrative that is actually consistent with the nature of the characters, Kim and Trump.
While multiple narratives may explain his actions (and in fact, multiple narrative may actually be in play simultaneously, each with its own goals), the one certainty we have is that the presented narrative is not the actual narrative.
Here is an alternative narrative in which both the characters, Kim and Trump, do ring true – a narrative in which their actions make sense based on their actual natures.
In this proposed narrative, we do have several known facts:
1. Kim’s nuclear capability is the only saber he has to rattle.
2. Kim has used disarmament before as a bargaining chip, only to go back on his word when he received what he was after.
3. Kim is the head of a cult of personality not unlike that of the Egyptian Pharaohs, and will never give that up.
4. Kim is not concerned with the well-being of his people.
5. Kim will even kill relatives and hundreds more in political purges in order to maintain power.
6. Kim’s position is atop an unstable coalition of economic and military leaders, all of whom are playing at their own narratives of amassing additional wealth and power. He keeps them in check through fear and by showing is remains powerful against the United States. In our work for the intelligence community, we determined Kim increases his power when he rattles his saber, and he increases the wealth of his supporters when he makes temporary concessions. By alternating between making and then breaking agreements and between war talk and peace talk, Kim satisfies his base and secures his position.
On the Trump side:
1. Republicans are in danger of losing control of at least one house of congress in the upcoming November elections, which would inhibit Trump in his power and money gathering efforts. A diplomatic win might keep both houses in Republican hands.
2. If the Republicans lose complete control, the Russian investigation becomes far more dangerous to Trump.
3. Trump has made a concerted effort to undo everything Barack Obama achieved and/or to better him. Obama struck the Iran deal, Trump wants to end it. Obama did not reach an agreement with North Korea, Trump wants to accomplish that.
4. Trump began running for reelection with an official committee and campaign rallies almost immediately after taking the oath of office. An apparent diplomatic win might very well tip the balance in 2020 to ensure his reelection.
5. A summit with Kim garners the world’s spotlight and baths both leaders in praise and adoration of their followers. In his post-summit news conference, Trump clearly bathed in the glory of the moment. Further, Obama received a Nobel (before he had accomplished anything, used by the Nobel committee as a political tool to “obligate” Obama to follow through) so Trump wants one too.
6. If Trump’s goal is to create a cult of personality and eventually have presidential term limits rescinded, as Putin did, so he might be endlessly reelected, the summit, even if the deal later falls through, the aura of being a peacemaker will remain and add to the passion of Trump’s followers.
Taken collectively, the natures of the characters of Trump and Kim suggest another narrative that is actually consistent with their personalities.
Kim gets recognition as an equal and legitimate player on the world stage, but does not have to live up to the agreement. His benefits cannot be called back, even if he does not follow through. And so his stature and security increases with his dangerous base, and when he pulls out of the agreement, he will regain the favor of his own hard-liners as well.
Trump gets world acclaim, strengthens his base, maintains control of congress and adds to his bid for reelection, allowing him to keep making money for political favors and to pave the way, ultimately, to becoming president for life, regardless of whether the agreement falls through or not.
Further, ending joint war games with South Korea (without having previously discussed this with them) helps pull America back from a position of power in the world, serving both China and Putin with whom Trump already has some very suspicious economic obligatory relationships.
It this the actual narrative? Perhaps not. But unlike the publicly offered narrative of seeking peace through altruism, this narrative at least is not in conflict with the natures of the character involved.
Melanie Anne Phillips