Donald Trump is a notorious misogynist, bigot and liar who stands accused of sexual assault and was caught on tape bragging about vile and abusive behaviour. He met Kim Jong-un in a landmark summit today, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking they are equals.
It came to pass, the world’s two worst hairdos faced off and the fat men shook hands. The grotesques who have the power to forge peace or ruin the world sized each other up. Twelve red, white and blue flags (six of the United States of America, six of the Democratic People’s Republic) above the red carpet showed not only how far North Korea has risen with the aid of nuclear weapons, but of how far the US has fallen. If you’re reading this, it means we’re not all dead.
For all the US President’s ability to tarnish his country and drag his office into the muck, his North Korean counterpart is a serial murderer who rules a nation of 25.4 million as a criminal empire. Lest we all fall for the idea the thirtysomething Kim is a cuddlier and more modern iteration of the despots that came before him, we should remember he had his uncle and half-brother murdered in stunning, public fashion to cement his authority. He rules over a virtual prison, and while some economic gains have been made under his leadership, the average North Korean has few freedoms and lives under the very real threat of being sent to gulags or executed for slights (real or imagined) against the regime.
Trump might wish he had such power, and his unhealthy enthusiasm for strongmen is well documented, but doesn’t. Yet.
It is tempting, especially in the wake of the G7 summit, to view the Trump era as a bad reality show. In this season of Ballistic Bachelorette, Kim has played the field cleverly on the way to today’s rose ceremony in Singapore. After so long alone and loveless, the millennial tyrant has wooed both China and South Korea, and sent flirty messages to Russia and the US. It was on, it was off, it was on again. And in a sensational twist, Trump blew off six of his country’s closest allies politically and economically while making eyes at Vladimir Putin.
Let’s face it, there’s only one couple we care about, and not just because they could lead us into war. The US tweeter-in-chief is consistently unreliable, and Kim is reliably devious – they are compelling characters. It suits one to have a distraction from mounting legal troubles, and the other has little real interest in dismantling his parasitic family network.
But just as the weirdness of the Stormy Daniels porn star payoff circus distracts from the worrying policy setbacks of the Trump administration, so too does the odd spectacle of the reclusive North Korean getting out and about overshadow the atrocities his regime is responsible for. There will be plenty for late-night hosts to joke about, but the summit is a standoff between nuclear nations – and from all outward appearances Kim is the calmer, more level-headed and calculating one.
Clearly, Kim has emerged emboldened and with a surer footing on the world stage. Six years ago, getting into the same theatre as the man took two metal detectors, a radiation sweep and a check for explosives – even the usher checked passports. The paranoia was about ensuring there would be no revolution from within, and Kim is now confident enough he will not be overthrown to travel. Photos with Moon Jae-in in Panmunjom, Xi Jinping in Beijing and Trump and Lee Hsien Loong in Singapore will be a propaganda opportunity the regime can exploit for years.
As always, the losers are the millions of North Koreans who are slaves to the Kim regime’s brutality. Six days of work a week in service of the state, with Sunday set aside for self-criticism, counts among the better fates. None are free to move, eat or do much at all without state approval; those who flee do so at great risk to themselves and the family members left behind. The hundreds of thousands who are worked to death in labour camps, the millions of lives ended or shortened through famine or cruelty, the use of VX gas in one of the world’s busiest airports are well documented – and it on the back of this suffering Kim, his father and grandfather have thrived.
For all the bluster and the tweets, for all the attention Trump swallows like a black hole, there is a population the size of Australia who should not be forgotten.
Michael Ruffles is a journalist whose penguin defected to North Korea.