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North Korea: Trump’s Rapallo?

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In the Spring of 1922, when the European continent was trying to reassemble itself following the end of the Great War, during which empires ceased to exist and new states popped up from the Arctic to the Adriatic, two disgruntled former enemies in the war found themselves with much in common.

Germany had lost the war and been harshly punished in the Treaty of Versailles settlement. Russia—now the Soviet Union following the October, 1917 Revolution—had retreated into itself, with Stalin effectively isolating the country as it tried to establish a Marxist economy. Both Germany and Russia were, to much of the rest of the world, outcasts.

Germany and the Soviet Union had completely opposite political systems. Germany had a rightwing, democratic, capitalistic government. Russia was a Communist dictatorship. But both realized that they could help one another. Both were being shunned by the rest of Europe and by America; both nurtured grievances of past injustices, real and perceived. Economically, Russia’s markets could provide trading outlets for German productivity, while the Ukraine could provide grain and other foodstuffs to a starving Germany. Militarily, the treaty afforded Germany the opportunity to repair its broken Wehrmacht. Soviet experts could train German officers and technicians in areas such as aviation, in furtive ways that had been outlawed by Versailles. Both nations had made war upon each other, a war that had ruined them. Making peace seemed logical. The Treaty of Rapallo ended the war between them. It was signed in Switzerland on April 16—Easter Sunday.

Rapallo meant different things to different people, depending on their point of view. “To Western liberals,” wrote the great American diplomatist, George Kennan, it was “the symbol of [a] sinister German-Soviet conspiracy.” But to the Russians and Germans themselves, the pact was a brilliant resolution to the problems that plagued both. “The treaty united the two pariahs of Europe,” wrote the British historian, Nigel Jones, “in a mutually beneficial way.”

The leaders of both countries—Stalin in Russia and Rathenau in Germany—made much of the treaty. Formally, it ended the state of war existing between their countries. It bought both time, to lick their wounds and redevelop their shattered institutions. But what it gave them in the short term did not translate into the long term. Nineteen years later—on June 21, 1941—Germany invaded the Soviet Union, leading to the greatest land battles and death toll in the history of war on Earth. Rapallo, in retrospect, had been only a convenient place holder.

Our country, America, will probably sign some sort of deal with North Korea pretty soon. Like the Treaty of Rapallo, the deal will end a state of war—in this case, the Korean War, which never formally ended, but only resulted in an Armistice in which hostilities ceased. Both sides, America and North Korea, have substantive reasons for a treaty. North Korea desperately needs economic revival and relief from punishing sanctions, just as did Germany and Russia in 1922. The American president, Trump, would like a deal in order to burnish his own credentials, in the wake of the mounting investigations of his possible criminal activities. The deal thus satisfies short-term goals on both sides.

With 20-20 hindsight, we can see that Rapallo turned out to be a disaster. Because it allowed the Germans to secretly build up their military, it gave them confidence in their ability to, not only defend themselves, but to act offensively, in what became Hitler’s plan for lebensraum: to seize control of Europe, including Russia. It also blinded Stalin to the threat that Germany actually posed to him—so blinded was he that he failed to appreciate the many warnings prior to Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 invasion. Both sides thought they had played a winning hand; both turned out to be big losers. Germany lost the Second World War, badly. Russia was on the winning side, but at an unimaginable cost in lives and treasure.

Will the Treaty of Pyongyang, or whatever it’s called, have longterm negative consequences for America? Will North Korea denuclearize itself and become a happy member of the Family of Nations? If so, then what have the last 65 years (the period since the Armistice) been all about? Did the Kim family drive North Korea into the poorhouse to develop nukes and missiles simply for the opportunity to sit with a U.S. president and sign a peace treaty? Will this treaty, if there is one, have unforeseen consequences?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad it looks like the Korean War will finally be over, and I’m willing to give credit to Trump for whatever part he played (which I think was less than what he claims). If Hillary Clinton had been elected, the North Koreans still would have tested their hydrogen bomb and perfected their missiles in 2017, and while we don’t know what Hillary would have done, she likely would have been as militant as Trump was, leading to the same result. At any rate, Trump should enjoy whatever acclaim he gets over the next few months, because it looks like the case against him is stronger than ever for collusion.

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