Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Gangland Diplomacy

As North Korea has rapidly advanced its nuclear weapons capability over the last year or more, I have often been reminded of a movie starring Kevin Kline and Danny Glover. Well, one scene anyway. 

That scene also sprung to mind last week after Donald Trump suddenly announced that he will have a face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-un, following months of incendiary threats from both sides.  

In the meantime, there has been a lot of public chatter about the wisdom of Trump’s meeting and its possible outcome. Previously, Trump has called for North Korea to end its nuclear program, or even to give up its nuclear weapons completely. To me, it seems that nuclear genie is already out of the bottle. It ain't going to happen.

Many pundits have also pointed out how exceptional it is for a sitting president to agree to such a meeting as a first step in a high-stakes negotiation. Someone observed that, by agreeing to meet, Trump already conceded to Kim something he has long craved, a sign of respect, an acknowledgement of legitimacy. 

And this again made me think of Kevin Kline and Danny Glover in what is to me the most memorable scene in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1991 movie “Grand Canyon”. This is what happens:  

A man, Mack (played by Kline), leading a sheltered, affluent life in L.A. finds himself alone and stranded when his car breaks down after midnight in a dangerous, deserted part of town. He manages to call for a tow truck just before his phone dies. It doesn’t take long for a passing street gang to notice his predicament and take interest in Mack's luxury car. Just when he’s about to become a victim of robbery or worse, the tow truck arrives, driven by the street-smart Simon (Danny Glover), who quickly and coolly hooks up the car, despite the tense situation. 

The leader of the gang, Rocstar, now threatens Simon, pulls a gun on him. Simon tries to talk Rocstar down, asking him for the favor of leaving in peace with the car. After some back and forth, with the gun pointed the whole time at Simon, Rocstar says:  

“I’m gonna grant you that favor, and I’m gonna expect you to remember it if we ever meet again. But tell me this, are you asking me as a sign of respect, or are you asking because I’ve got the gun?” 

Simon replies. “Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. I mean, maybe you don’t know that yet. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without having to ask you if I can. That dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you ripping him off. Everything is supposed to be different than it is.” 

Rocstar demands, “So, what’s your answer?”  

With a world-weary matter-of-factness, Simon responds, “You ain’t got the gun, we ain’t having this conversation.” 

“That’s what I thought,” Rocstar says. “No gun, no respect. That’s why I always got the gun.”  

This is why I fear it’s unrealistic to expect North Korea to ever give up its nukes, no doubt having learned the lessons of what happened to Muammar Gaddafi and the nation of Ukraine, that is: "no nukes, no respect". 

It's also surely a message driven home by being granted an unprecedented meeting with a US president. I think it’s an ugly message, but maybe that’s the way gangland diplomacy works.

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