Are the United States and North Korea on the brink of a nuclear war?
According to foreign policy experts, it depends mostly on two individuals: President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, the dictator of North Korea. Their decisions may be influenced by their personality, temperament and character.
People who have known Trump since his youth say he hasn't changed a bit. The characteristics that made him a multibillionaire and ultimately president still govern his actions. He is not, as Churchill characterized the Soviet Union, "a riddle wrapped into a mystery inside an enigma." He is quite predictable, based on his track record. His actions don't necessarily align with his words.
What about Kim Jong Un? Until 2011, when Kim Jong Il, the North Korean dictator died of a heart attack, few outside the country knew about his son, Kim Jong Un. He took over the reins, inheriting the world's fourth-largest military, with a nuclear arsenal.
Several people in the West, however, have memories of the young Kim Jong Un. They were his schoolmates at an English-language international school, near Bern, Switzerland.
When Kim Jong Un was 9, his father enrolled him at the Swiss school under an assumed name as the son of a North Korean diplomat. The young Kim had his own apartment, cook, chauffer and bodyguard. He had also the latest high-tech toys. He remained at the school until he was 15. Upon his return home, he attended Kim Il Sung Military University.
One of his classmates, Nikola Kovacevic remembers him as a fiercely competitive basketball player. "Very explosive, he was the play maker," Kovacevis told The Mirror, a British newspaper. "He made things happen. Although he was overweight and only 5 feet 6 inches tall, he was a decent basketball player."
Another former classmate, Marco Imhof said, "Winning was very important to him. He hated to lose." Kim Jong Un is remembered as a big fan of the American basketball star Michael Jordan.
Other former classmates remember Kim Jong Un as struggling with learning English and German, but excelling at mathematics. "Politics was a taboo subject at the school ... we would argue about football not politics."
Those who have watched Kim Jong Un's rise to power concluded that his prolonged exposure to the West and its values had no lasting impact. Since he took over the reins in North Korea, he ordered the execution of 140 high-ranking military and government officials, including members of his own family. The smallest sign of disloyalty is enough to bring on doom.
In spite of the negative signs coming from North Korea, experts who had negotiated with the regime, among them Mitchell Reiss, President and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, maintain that the North Koreans are not crazy or irrational.
Reiss, should know. As the chief negotiator for the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, an agency responsible for a $6 billion project that was set up to entice North Korea to freeze and eliminate its nuclear weapons program, he visited North Korea repeatedly, spending more time negotiating and interacting with high-level North Korean officials than any other American.
Reiss, in a March 2017 interview with the Gazette, said: "As with any negotiation, you need to demonstrate patience, resolve and empathy. With North Korea, I don't believe it is currently possible to reach any agreement on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, for many reasons, a large one being the impossibility of verifying compliance."
While evaluating Kim Jong Un's possible behavior during the current stand-off between the United States and North Korea, it may be worthwhile to remember that as a student he excelled at mathematics. Thus, he can figure out that North Korea's nuclear stockpile of maybe 80 bombs, is no match to the 1,500 U.S. nuclear weapons.
Shatz, is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.