To appreciate the positive results of President Trump’s summit meeting in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, it is useful to recall that despite periodic diplomatic breakthroughs between 1991 and 2007, which could have led to curtailing and rolling back Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, the net result was failure — leading to a rapid acceleration in North Korea’s capabilities during the past three years.
How could this have happened despite the best efforts of some very talented American diplomats and officials who were quite aware of the risks the U.S. faced?
For an answer, look no further than the various negative reactions amplified in U.S. media to the Trump-Kim meeting. These reactions reflect — and expand upon — the harsh criticisms leveled at U.S. diplomats and officials who negotiated with North Korea over the past three decades, criticisms that have helped to hobble effective American diplomacy. Notable examples:
• Trump loves dictators: “The evidence is now overwhelming that Trump cannot resist a dictator. … This was an unserious summit, cobbled together in haste by an unserious man.” (Roger Cohen, New York Times)
• Trump was played: “It sure looks as if President Trump was hoodwinked in Singapore. Trump made a huge concession — the suspension of military exercises with South Korea. That’s on top of the broader concession of the summit meeting itself, security guarantees he gave North Korea and the legitimacy that the summit provides his counterpart, Kim Jong Un. In exchange for these concessions, Trump seems to have won astonishingly little.” (Nicholas Kristof, New York Times)
• Trump intentionally undermined American national security: “For now, I’d only nominate [Trump] for the ‘Ignoble Prize.’ It’s given to the leader who uses his presidential prerogatives to undermine the personal security of his citizens and values of his nation in more ways in just one year than any leader before him.” (Thomas Friedman, New York Times)
• Anything less than a detailed denuclearization agreement represents failure: “The document is short on details. It is worrisome, very worrisome, that this joint statement is so imprecise.” (Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate minority leader)
• Merely meeting the leader of North Korea resulted in a victory for Kim: “A summit is not an accomplishment for the American president. It is a major accomplishment for Kim Jong Un. In fact, the spectacle of seeing the American flags along with the [North Korean] flags as the backdrop for that handshake is … somewhat disgusting. It is actually a debasement of the American flag. This is a despotic regime that murders its own citizens.” (Jeremy Bash, former Department of Defense chief of staff)
The vehemence and all-knowing character of these and other negative reactions to the June 12 summit are striking — even more over-the-top than accusations of appeasement, perfidy, incompetence, bribery and disloyalty leveled in the past against U.S. officials who negotiated with North Korea.
Yet the recent reactions follow the same general pattern as those heard in previous years. North Korea is so negatively embedded in American political culture as our most reckless adversary that it takes a combination of presidential courage and deep skepticism about failed conventional approaches of the past to embark on a new path.
Like the decision by President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to chart a new diplomatic course toward Communist China, Trump’s decision was dictated by realpolitik. In the case of China, the U.S. administration wisely moved China away from Russia at the height of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. In the case of North Korea, the United States now has disrupted Pyongyang’s seemingly unstoppable drive to increase its arsenal of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and has strengthened America’s long-term relations with the Korean people, both North and South.
By introducing unprecedented security and economic incentives for denuclearization, on top of the toughest sanctions ever applied against Pyongyang, the Trump administration has maximized diplomatic leverage against Kim Jong Un. This approach advances the U.S. objective of achieving a diplomatic solution in the Korean Peninsula, where available military options would cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and could lead to a nuclear war.