Sometimes bad people do good things. And only those who hold the absurd notion that the small, impoverished country of North Korea is an evil devil incarnate don’t see that Donald Trump meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is a good thing.
The main complaint, as exemplified by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, is that the United States gave away too much. That’s ridiculous. North Korea is going to temporarily stop nuclear weapons development and the sanctions remain. The “too much” is the de facto legitimization of the North Korean government that a visit from a U.S. leader entails; as Peter Baker put it in the New York Times, “they did not want to reward Pyongyang with the prestige of such a meeting unless there was substantial assurance of a breakthrough.” That’s ridiculous. The Old Testament proverb that “pride goeth before a fall” applies to those who think that a presidential visit has tangible value at a negotiating table as much as it did to the planners of the Vietnam and Second Iraq wars.
Another concern is that it’s Trump who is going, so we can all hold our breaths like parents of a poorly socialized four-year-old in expectation of bad behavior: saying the wrong thing, snubbing the hosts with cultural faux pas, getting pissed off, and making idle threats. But that sounds like the way he treats our allies, not autocrats like Putin, Xi and bin Salman. Who knows? Trump may come away with some good ideas for his military parade. The bigger threat of course is that he gives away the store, as he has proven to be a terrible negotiator in government.
The last objection is that if the negotiations fail, it will bring us closer to war, as that will demonstrate to Trump that his view that war with North Korea is the only answer is correct. That’s what Victor Cha, former national foreign policy advisor to Bush II, is saying. But should we then wait for Trump to conclude that negotiations don’t work without even trying them? Yes, it would be nice if Trump and Kim followed diplomatic niceties and first had their people work out the details of what would be discussed before agreeing to a sit-down, but doing so would not have guaranteed a successful outcome, especially with two people as erratic and publicity-seeking as Trump and Kim. The sudden surprise and the big splash is more their style.
Besides, negotiating is always better than saber-rattling or bomb-dropping, no matter who is doing the negotiating. Period.
Let’s not, however, confuse this development with Nixon going to China, as many Trump admirers want to do. Just hold in your mind for one minute three words and you’ll see the difference. The words are: China. North Korea. A country with more than a billion people versus a country of 25 million. What is the difference in trade potential with China in the 1970’s versus with North Korea today? The potential impact of a war with either? The significance in terms of the international balance of power?
The question at this point should not be whether a Trump trip to North Korea is a good thing, but if Trump has achieved a diplomatic success by his tough talk? Is the Trump bluster—pushing our weight around with threats of military intervention and trade wars—a more effective tool than diplomacy and alliance building?
To answer that question let’s first analyze what happened. Trump made violent threats and Kim responded by launching rocket tests. Meanwhile, sanctions kept up their slow torture of the North Korean economy. Trump shut up for a few months and Kim came to the table after much traditional courting by the South Koreans. Those facts don’t make a good case for Trump’s brand of speaking loudly and wielding a big stick.
I am going to propose some other reasons that Kim decided to halt North Korea’s nuclear arms development while still under sanction and to meet with the United States. Some combination of all these reasons probably compelled Kim to act. Spoiler alert—I think it’s the last one mentioned:
- The Olympics made Kim recognize the advantages of being part of the society of world nations and the global economy, and not an isolated outlier constrained by economic sanctions.
- The sanctions worked and Kim realizes that he has to bend to the will of the rest of the world.
- Kim has run out of money for further development of a North Korean nuclear capability for a while.
- Russia put pressure on North Korea to get serious about negotiations with South Korea. Russia is interested in building a natural gas pipeline through North Korea to supply South Korea with natural gas. That would explain both South Korea’s overtures and North Korea’s willingness to listen and talk. Sounds like the type of deal that’s getting done a lot lately, like the new Trans-Pacific Partnership—done without the United States.
So I don’t think Trump’s actions instigated Kim, but recent events do represent a turnaround in what he’s been saying for a long time: that negotiations have failed and we have to take further action. Maybe now that he’s ready to talk to Kim—even if it’s for no other reason than to see another parade and hear the cheers of another crowd of people in a foreign land—Trump might recognize that using sanctions and negotiations to stop countries from developing nuclear capabilities is a good thing and change his mind about the Iran nuclear deal. Of course, first he would have to get over his racist notion that if a black man did it, it couldn’t be good.