President Trump’s meeting this weekend in the DMZ with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was hastily arranged, but it served a useful purpose, as did Trump’s historic crossing into North Korean territory. At a time when US-North Korea dialogue has been stuck in the mud since the collapse of the Hanoi Summit in late February, the made-for-TV event gave a shot in the arm to diplomacy, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announcing yesterday that working-level negotiations would likely commence in mid-July. Everyone seemed pleased with the important if unspectacular outcome except for Trump’s political opponents back home, who immediately went into attack mode. While concerns about the lack of concrete results on denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula over the last year are understandable and indeed justifiable, the excessive domestic partisanship has the potential to complicate US and South Korean diplomacy with North Korea.
Partisan Democratic Pot Shots
The criticisms of the Trump-Kim tête-à-tête from the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders occurred almost immediately, and most of them were nothing more than recycled bromides meant for a domestic audience. Former US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro took to the airways and denounced Trump for giving Kim an international platform. “I’m all for speaking with adversaries but what’s happened here is the president has raised the profile of a dictator,” Castro said on ABC’s This Week. Former Vice President Joe Biden blasted Trump’s weekend rendezvous with Kim as beneath the dignity of a US president, emphasizing that his “coddling” of a tyrant came “at the expense of American national security and interests.” Congressman Tim Ryan (OH-13) went as far as comparing the confab to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s summit with Adolf Hitler in 1938, a patently absurd and grossly inaccurate charge.
Politicians from the opposing party did not have a corner on the market for blowback. Columnists and pundits in America’s major media outlets, from the Washington Post’s Max Boot and CNN’s Samantha Vinograd to MSNBC’s Bill Kristol and the New Yorker’s Robin Wright, were just as intense in their denunciations. The complaints revolved around moral qualms with speaking directly with a brutal dictator; concerns about meeting with Kim without preconditions or a guarantee of concessions; exhaustion with Trump’s propensity for showmanship over substance; and the lack of measurable achievements thus far on denuclearization. They are, in short, the typical Monday morning quarterbacking one often hears in Washington from skeptics who frequently view diplomacy as a reward in itself rather than a means to an end.
Giving Negotiations a Chance
Much of the opposition levied by Democratic presidential candidates in the days since the Trump-Kim meeting is disingenuous and reflexive. Perhaps none fits this description better than the moral argument—i.e., because Kim is a heinous individual with a horrendous human rights record, the US president should treat him like a pariah. According to this logic, failing to do so sullies the office of the presidency, undermines US credibility as a beacon of hope and freedom and provides a murderous regime with the opportunity to improve its public image. The Trump administration has been subjected to these attacks ever since the first summit in Singapore in June 2018.
Yet as the old saying goes, you make peace with your enemies, not your friends. Resolving problems with foreign adversaries requires bold, white-knuckled conversations that may be uncomfortable but which are absolutely necessary to establish a path where solutions become available. This is particularly the case with North Korea, which has had a deeply distrustful relationship with the United States for nearly seven decades and whose leadership is openly hostile and paranoid about US motivations and intentions. In such circumstances, a lack of diplomacy at senior levels is more likely to exacerbate feelings of mutual grievance than foster conditions for compromise.
Moreover, empowering negotiators sometimes requires interacting with the person at the top of the political system, a calculation Trump has made in order to maintain the current détente as nuclear talks progress into unknown territory. As Americans, we may not like the idea of showering Kim with attention or treating him as an equal by shaking his hand. Indeed, there is a general belief across the political aisle, almost akin to gospel, that callously equates talking in search of good-enough solutions with legitimization of the enemy. But talking with an adversary should not be seen as a concession—and principled and pragmatic policy should not allow emotion to obstruct negotiations that would advance the national interest, particularly when their collapse would likely replace a period of relative comity with Trumpian threats of “fire and fury,” “locked and loaded,” and “annihilation” of North Korea.
Domestic politics will always play a role in high-stakes diplomatic events, doubly so when a US presidential campaign season is just heating up. But the degree to which Democratic candidates for president have dismissed last weekend’s historic DMZ meeting as a nothing burger at best and dangerous capitulation at worst is a troubling indictment of just how unserious the discourse about US policy toward North Korea (and foreign policy more generally) has become. Nobody who has been paying attention to US-DPRK relations would expect a written agreement between Trump and Kim after a 50-minute meeting and four months of stalemate. Nor would pushing for such an outcome be desirable at this point; as Democrats and others have frequently argued, working-level negotiations and extensive preparations are needed before the next summit—and that is exactly the opportunity that the Trump-Kim meeting has created.
Changing the North Korean Paradigm in Washington
Over the past quarter-century, Republicans and Democrats in Washington have viewed the North Korea file through the exclusive prism of denuclearization. Pressuring the North Korean government into destroying its existing nuclear weapons capability and eliminating its stockpile of warheads has been the idée fixe of successive US administrations since at least the early 1990s. Declaring an official end to the Korean War, establishing regular diplomatic contact between US and North Korean officials and lowering the temperature on the Korean Peninsula have all played second fiddle to denuclearization. US and UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea remain the principal hindrance to progress on the inter-Korean peace track. President Moon is unable to proceed with even minor cross-border economic or construction projects due to a sanctions architecture that is upheld by bipartisan majorities in the US Congress as examples of America’s strength and resolve.
The swift criticisms about the Trump-Kim DMZ meeting over the past 48 hours perpetuate a conventional but profoundly misguided belief: there should be no sanctions relief or normalization of any kind absent Pyongyang’s final, fully-verified denuclearization. This stance plays well in Washington, where acting tough and uncompromising in the face of US adversaries is good domestic politics. Yet this approach does nothing to move the ball forward on a North-South peace process that, if consummated, would help extinguish decades of mutual animosity between the two Koreas. In fact, by essentially holding inter-Korean reconciliation hostage to progress on US-North Korea nuclear talks, policymakers and politicians in Washington are de-facto blocking President Moon’s valiant efforts toward establishing peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. Consequently, any US or North Korean decisions that revitalize diplomacy, as happened over the weekend, is a potentially important step toward accomplishing this goal.
There are legitimate gripes with the Trump administration’s North Korea negotiating strategy. Trump has allowed himself to be outflanked by some of his more hardline advisers, who remain impervious to a step-by-step approach and appear fixated on forcing the whole denuclearization enchilada down Kim Jong Un’s throat. The president’s unctuous comments about Kim are unsavory and complicate his task by playing into the hands of Democratic (and Republican) members of Congress and Democratic presidential candidates who are highly skeptical that negotiations will accomplish anything. Too much of the second-guessing today, however, is about putting political points on the board in preparation for an election year. With peace at stake, those who aspire to be the next president of the United States must be more responsible with their rhetoric and check their partisanship at the door before it undermines a process that has been given a new lease on life.