Can President Donald Trump accomplish for North Korea what President Ronald Reagan did with the Soviet empire?
Thirty one years ago this month, President Reagan inspired everyone living under Communism with his passionate plea in Berlin to “tear down this wall.” Indeed, Reagan’s words and his many strategic deeds ultimately succeeded in ending the Soviet empire, beginning with the opening of the Berlin wall on November 9, 1989.
Yet the Iron Curtain had seemed as enduring as the pyramids, and the Soviet Union was apparently at the zenith of their power worldwide. So how did it crumble nearly bloodlessly and with such great speed?
This was the spark of hope that Reagan gave the enslaved millions behind the Iron Curtain in his historic speech:
“There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
His words were addressed to Gorbachev, but the message was a gift of precious hope to the oppressed people from one end of the Soviet empire to the other. The Chinese people also felt it and demonstrated for freedom until the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989.
Reagan later said that, “our advance people had put up speakers aimed at East Berlin, hoping that my speech might be heard on the other side. I could see the East German police keeping people away so that they couldn’t hear. They simply don’t realize it’s going to take more than that to keep out the stirrings of freedom.” Reagan knew.
Fast forward to the present, with President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE’s carrot and stick approach to North Korea.
As with President Reagan’s strategy to win the Cold War rather than endlessly appease the Soviets, President Trump used a massive show of force and promises of “fire and fury” to make dictator Kim Jong-un decide between war and peace.
The Indonesia summit might not yield de-nuclearization. After all, North Korea signed nuclear agreements but has exploded six atom bombs to date, so Kim could well revert to being “Rocket Man” at any moment. However, President Trump has warned that if talks fail, there will be more sanctions, and the chances of war would likely increase.
But here’s what may be different this time.
As part of the president’s “rising expectations” campaign, he wooed Kim at the summit with a video showing how Kim could transform his slave state into a relative paradise — or maintain his course towards a terrible war and continued poverty.
This might or might not sway Kim, but the real audience will be the people of North Korea, some of whom will see or hear about this video in spite of censorship, as well as the second tier of military leaders, who, once hearing about this enticing future and the North’s own reporting of the summit, might be tempted to oust Kim if he retreats back to being "Rocket Man."
The North Korean state-run media spread the “rising expectations” message to all North Koreans by unveiling an amazing new portrayal of the United States and President Trump. Gone are the bizarre hostilities, propaganda posters and anti-American venom that every North Korean has been indoctrinated with from childhood, replaced by friendly images of Trump and Kim and perhaps the highest possible praise in that country: dubbing President Trump as a “supreme leader” — effectively anointing him as an equal with Kim.
Whether or not Kim intended it, the news of the summit shattered the foundation of the insidious propaganda that the regime used for decades to control their population: that the U.S. is the ultimate evil and is at war with the North, and that their survival required insanely total obedience and extreme poverty.
Alexis de Tocqueville understood the phenomenon of “rising expectations,” writing:
“It is not always by going from bad to worse that a society falls into a revolution. It happens most often that a people, which has supported without complaint, as if they were not felt, the most oppressive laws, violently throws them off as soon as their weight is lightened.”
For the first time ever, the North Korean people can see a glimmer of hope that the weight of their oppressive laws and enforced poverty could be lightened. Nothing will make them forget this vision.
However, betrayal of rising expectations creates intense public anger that can also incite demonstrations and revolutions. Witness the massive demonstrations following the stolen 2009 presidential elections in Iran, or in Egypt when President Mohamed Morsi betrayed the promise of the Arab Spring, resulting in another popular revolution in favor of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
What’s different this time? The people of North Korea might become an unexpected force to pressure Kim to truly denuclearize and allow their nation to prosper.
What should we do next? Double down on the message that North Koreans have a right to be free and prosperous, especially through the Voice of America and more statements by the president.
Art Harman is the director of the Coalition to Save Manned Space Exploration, and served as the Legislative Director and foreign policy advisor for Rep. Steve StockmanStephen (Steve) Ernest StockmanPardon talk intensifies as Trump approaches final 24 hours in office GOP senator on Trump pardons: 'It is legal, it is constitutional, but I think it's a misuse of the power' Nothing becomes Donald Trump's presidency like his leaving it MORE (R-Texas) in the 113th Congress. Harman witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and walked in the footsteps of the democracy advocates in Tiananmen Square. He studied foreign policy at the Institute of World Politics.