Donald Trump was having dinner at Mar-a-Lago with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on February 11 when a message arrived mid-meal, courtesy of Pyongyang: North Korea had just tested a new, solid-fuel, intermediate-range ballistic missile, fired from a mobile—and therefore hard-to-detect—launcher. The president pulled out his 1990s flip-phone and discussed this event in front of the various people sitting within earshot. One of these diners, Richard DeAgazio, was suitably agog at the import of this weighty scene, posting the following comment on his Facebook page: “HOLY MOLY!!! It was fascinating to watch the flurry of activity at dinner when the news came that North Korea had launched a missile in the direction of Japan.”
Actually, this missile was aimed directly at Mar-a-Lago, figuratively speaking. It was a pointed nod to history that no American media outlet grasped: “Prime Minister Shinzo,” as Trump called him, is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, a former Japanese prime minister whom Abe reveres. Nobusuke was deemed a “Class A” war criminal by the US occupation authorities after World War II, and he ran munitions manufacturing in Manchuria in the 1930s, when Gen. Hideki Tojo was provost marshal there. Kim Il-sung, whom grandson Kim Jong-un likewise reveres, was fighting the Japanese at the same time and in the same place.
As I wrote for this magazine in January 2016, the North Koreans must be astonished to discover that US leaders never seem to grasp the import of their history-related provocations. Even more infuriating is Washington’s implacable refusal ever to investigate our 72-year history of conflict with the North; all of our media appear to live in an eternal present, with each new crisis treated as sui generis. Visiting Seoul in March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted that North Korea has a history of violating one agreement after another; in fact, President Bill Clinton got it to freeze its plutonium production for eight years (1994–2002) and, in October 2000, had indirectly worked out a deal to buy all of its medium- and long-range missiles. Clinton also signed an agreement with Gen. Jo Myong-rok stating that henceforth, neither country would bear “hostile intent” toward the other.