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[Bandy X. Lee] Peace or war on Korean Peninsula?

One of the most critical roles of a president is to negotiate terms of peace and war. The fate of a nation, or even the world, could hang in the balance; a misstep could plunge humanity into a worldwide war, but the right step could bring about long-awaited peace.

A sudden and intense interest in the American president since his agreement to a US-North Korea summit took me to South Korea as editor of the book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.” More than two dozen top mental health professionals have assessed the risk the US president poses to public safety. A high level of civic consciousness was palpable in Seoul, enough to impeach a president for mental impairment and to imprison two presidents for corruption. Things are yet far off from this in the US.

South Koreans’ perception of Trump, however, was still rudimentary and positive, reminiscent of the buoyant days of his early presidency in the US, when people assumed, “He can’t be that bad or ineffective if he succeeded as a businessman and eventually attained the presidency.” Mental health professionals who saw more dangerous psychological patterns, however, were compelled to share their insights. Almost a year after the book was compiled, illusions have faded away, and now most serious analysts would consider him to be dangerous for the US and the world.

Haphazardly, after denigrating diplomacy and making war preparations over months, when Trump heard that a South Korean official was in the West Wing, he called him to the Oval Office and immediately agreed to a meeting with the North Korean leader, without confirmation of the invitation and without discussion with his advisers. This highly unusual move raised hopes. However, we know that he lacks the knowledge, understanding, or even the diplomatic impulse for the summit to be successful. Furthermore, the context in which he changed course from belligerent sparring with the North Korean leader toward peace talks is not reassuring: in that moment, the agreement allowed for welcome applause and distraction away from a scandal involving an affair with a porn star, an increasingly isolated White House and the confirmation of Russian cyberwarfare having aided his election into office. The South Korean envoy was asked to make an announcement on the spot. Moreover, his secretary of state earlier that day, and vice president a couple days before, had said the exact opposite: that talks were likely a long way away.

The secretary of state was subsequently fired suddenly, as was the national security adviser, both moderating forces, despite White House denials that it intended any changes in advance of the summit. Why are these facts important? When there is news of chaos and disruption in the White House, it may be an external indication of internal chaos and disorder. When there is a subversion of reality and a drive toward violence, these may be glimpses into the intensity of internal needs. Trump’s Twitter usage is also very revealing of ever-increasing anxiety and the need to attack. When a president makes appointments to fulfill disordered urges -- such as with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is pro-war and pro-torture, and national security adviser John Bolton, who is actively advocating for preventive wars in North Korea and Iran -- the patterns are consistent with pathology, not health.

Former National Security Council member Victor Cha has had some poignant words, “While the unpredictability of a meeting between these two unconventional leaders provides unique opportunities to end the decades-old conflict, its failure could also push the two countries to the brink of war.”

Trump has exhibited traits that are highly associated with violence: impulsivity, paranoid responses, rage reactions, poor coping ability in the face of criticism or unflattering news, and a constant need to burnish a sense of power. Past violence is the best predictor of future violence, and Trump has been verbally aggressive, boasted of sexual assaults, incited violence in his followers, shown an attraction to violence and powerful weapons and has taunted allies and hostile nations alike. When the special prosecutor’s first indictments surfaced, he showed symptoms of psychotic spiraling, losing touch with reality and being drawn to violent imagery -- a response that can be expected from his psychological patterns.

Meanwhile, South Korean president Moon Jae-in has been highly effective in bringing about the possibility of peace on the Korean Peninsula. When Trump continued to escalate tensions through his rhetoric, Moon seized control by reaching out to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. When the US relentlessly progressed in its plans for war, South Korea made bold moves to attain the US’ agreement on peace talks. This is also a demonstration of the people’s power, having democratically elected a leader with approval ratings of 80 percent who is emotionally sound and capable of intelligently carrying out the people’s wishes. To keep the US president on board, Moon has continued to lavish praise, even amid suggestions the summit may grant him a Nobel Prize.

This is where the potential for success lies: not in unstable leaders, but people’s power and its representatives. Reliance on impulsivity and the need for approval is too precarious for what is at stake for the world: just as easily as historically unprecedented possibilities could come true, so could unprecedented threats. The peace achieved under these circumstances, furthermore, is bound to be shallow and short-lived. While tensions grow at home, especially with the special prosecutor’s investigations drawing ever closer, a military option or violent outbreak will be highly tempting. One cannot underestimate the absolute terror and violent defenses that can arise in someone of Trump’s psychological patterns, were his grandiose facade to crumble -- and now he has hawkish new personnel around him to carry out his impulses.

However, if we recognize these risks and remove the actual negotiations as far from the unstable president as possible, an exceptional opportunity arises. In fact, Trump’s defects have had an unexpected positive effect on the American people. While many of his own appointments reflect and augment his tendencies for violence and war, and the US Congress and lately the military have enabled him, a renewed uprising of people’s power is unmistakable. Americans are also learning that their democratic structures and institutions are strong and strengthening in the face of heavy challenges. Together with South Koreans, who long for a resolution after 65 years of war, both peoples can unite in their common goals and assert their demands for peace.


Bandy X. Lee
Bandy X. Lee is a forensic psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine and a project group leader for the World Health Organization Violence Prevention Alliance. She can be reached at bandy.lee@yale.edu. –Ed.

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