The question on everyone’s lips: Are Trump and Kim really in a relationship?
The drama of developing or deteriorating relations between the US and North Korea — or rather between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un — continues on its inscrutable path as the West tries, perhaps for the first time, to make sense of East Asian culture.
After a fundamentally comic exchange around the idea of “gangster-like requests” (which we commented on here), revealing that there may be trouble in paradise, President Trump proudly tweeted about a “a very nice note” he received a week earlier from Chairman Kim. As The Japan Times describes it: “Kim expresses ‘invariable trust and confidence’ in the president and wishes that ‘epochal progress’ in promoting relations will ‘bring our next meeting forward.’”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
In ordinary English, a vague, rhetorically hyperbolic synonym of important or significant. In Asia, epochal refers to a fundamental shift in history.
In the West, epoch and era are synonyms signifying stretches of time with no clear idea of beginning and end. In Asia, the notion of epoch refers to the first year of an astronomically (and astrologically) defined historical period of great length (centuries). The Han character for epoch, 朝, in Chinese and Korean signifies morning, the beginning of the day and by extension the beginning of a dynasty.
What does this exchange really tell us? First, that Asians — and Kim Jong-un in particular — have a better understanding of Western (and American) culture than Americans have of Eastern culture. It also proves that Trump — although it may be mainly out of wish fulfillment rather than intellectual lucidity — is more in phase with Asian practices than the rest of the political establishment and the media.
His ploy may be merely rhetorical, but Trump is presenting this breakthrough as a new dawn (“Great progress being made”), whereas all other public voices — especially the media and the Democrats — not only refuse to see it as a potentially an epochal event, but appear to feel threatened by the idea of a change of epoch and the prospect of an end to the epoch of American domination of global politics.
On the other hand, “great progress” is not the same thing as “epochal progress.” Especially when Trump’s reasoning is summed up by, “I really think that we established a very good relationship. We’ll see where it all ends.” Kim is literally talking about a beginning, whereas Trump is focused on the end.
This sums up the mystery of Trump. He wants the US to dominate, but not in the way it has successfully dominated since World War II, when it relied on hidden persuasion rather than self-assertive bombast. Trump appears to be an inept poker player, showing his cards far too often, while assuming that his deep pockets will eventually drive everyone out of the game. But he isn’t wrong. Deep pockets can, in the right circumstances, be enough to break the opponents’ bank, especially in a game where no one is allowed to gather their winnings and leave the table before the end of the session.
A very nice note from Chairman Kim of North Korea. Great progress being made! pic.twitter.com/6NI6AqL0xt
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 12, 2018
The Washington Post makes an effort to deconstruct the drama presumably to make it less “inscrutable,” while casting its obligatory doubt on Trump’s strategy and efficacy. They correctly identify signs that the Koreans have not simply accepted Trump’s terms. But they miss the real point, which has to do with how relationships evolve over time.
Trump wants us to believe that he has established “a very good relationship” and is looking forward to seeing where it “ends.” His American critics want us to believe that there is no relationship. Both have failed to understand how Koreans function.
For Asians, relationship is something that evolves over time and may extend over an epoch. In Korean culture, “when two people of similar age or status who don’t know each other well become closer over time, they may both agree to switch from jondaemal [formal or polite Korean speech] to banmal [informal and casual speech], as it allows the relationship to be more relaxed.” Trump the deal-maker, forcing his smiling, back slapping salesman’s informality on his new “friend,” appears to the Koreans, after a mere two hours of face to face meeting, to be pushing toward banmal — which can only be acquired “over time” — while wondering “where it all ends.”
In the East, positive relationships evolve but are not expected to “end.” But for all his ineptness, Trump alone, within the political establishment, seems (in his superficial, insincere way) to understand that it’s all about relationship.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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