President Trump’s announcement Thursday that he will meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is a stunning diplomatic breakthrough – one that paradoxically was made possible with tough talk and tough action against the nuclear-armed Communist regime.
The key question now is whether North Korea is genuinely willing to negotiate or if this is just another one of its attempts to sucker its opponents.
From the earliest days of the Trump administration, it was clear the president and his top aides were unwilling to sit idly by as North Korea developed hydrogen bombs and the ability to deliver them to the continental United States.
Gone was the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience” that amounted to doing nothing. President Trump’s shift and its associated pressure on North Korea’s key benefactor, China, marked a fundamental if unheralded change in the focus of U.S. foreign policy in Asia.
Despite endless mainstream media reports about “chaos” in the administration, all of the national security apparatus began working in unison to make progress in dealing with North Korea – a stark difference from internal disputes over foreign policy that marked the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.
Under President Trump:
· The Pentagon increased the presence of U.S. military forces in the Pacific, especially after North Korean nuclear and missile tests. It also saw through plans to provide Japan and South Korea with sophisticated new missile-defense systems.
· The Treasury Department enforced increasingly stringent sanctions on North Korea.
· President Trump himself goaded China to get tougher on North Korea.
· Vice President Mike Pence spotlighted the intense repression of the North Korean dictatorship.
· Rex Tillerson’s State Department put a full-court press on countries around the world to cut back ties with Pyongyang and send home North Korean expatriate workers whose wages benefit the regime almost exclusively.
· At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley echoed President Trump in warning North Korea and the world of the consequences of a North Korean attack on America or our allies.
These tough actions and words appear to have brought North Korea to the negotiating table without its usual demand for concessions even to talk.
Of course, scheduling a summit between leaders is just the beginning of a diplomatic process, not the end.
North Korea previously negotiated with the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, and in both instances promised to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. Both times it pocketed major handouts and concessions, but never delivered the goods.
The North’s s sudden willingness to talk now after a period of provocative nuclear and missile tests is consistent with the historical pattern that led to two U.S. presidents being snookered.
The difference this time is President Trump. Whether one is buying a used car, pursuing a real estate transaction, or negotiating an arms-control agreement, the key to getting a good deal is a willingness to walk away from talks if the other side is being unreasonable. No one doubts President Trump’s inclination to do this when necessary.
While the stated goal of the Trump administration and its allies going into negotiations is the complete denuclearization of North Korea, this objective isn’t possible at this time.
The Kim dynasty that runs the country justifies its repression and conduct by falsely claiming the United States and our allies are bent on invading the country. To give up its decades-long nuclear ambitions completely would remove a key part of the regime’s self-professed reason for its existence. It won’t happen.
However, more modest achievements may be possible, including a permanent end to North Korean nuclear explosives and ballistic missile production and testing. This would be a breakthrough. Combined with U.S. nuclear deterrence and improvements in allied defense capabilities – especially better missile defense – it would mark an imperfect but acceptable security situation.
It’s also important for the Trump administration to continue giving voice to North Korean defectors and those left behind in the North Korean prison state. This effort – led recently by Pence – isn’t just altruistic, but practical. That’s because North Korea will always be dangerous under its current political structure.
The path ahead is likely to be turbulent and long. Talks may start and stall. But the fact that President Trump rallied the world in a broad coalition, successfully pressured North Korea into talks, and is willing to involve himself personally in negotiations places him above his predecessors in confronting the North Korean threat.
How ironic that the president who experts believe is the least diplomatic in modern history is doing so well at real diplomacy.