Give Trump Credit for the North Korea Opening

In this one area at least, the administration’s policy has been focused and effective.

South Korea's national-security chief briefs President Trump
South Korea's national-security chief briefs President Trump (Reuters)

There are plenty of good reasons to worry about President Donald Trump meeting North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, and plenty of smart people are worrying. But there are some upsides to the business that don’t seem yet to be getting enough attention—and for which the American government and the Trump administration aren’t yet getting enough credit.

It wasn’t a surprise. Peter Baker and Choe Sang-Hun reported in The New York Times that American intelligence agencies had reported the contents of a recent meeting between North and South Korean officials. That reflects some fine intelligence work. North Korea is a notoriously difficult place to gather intelligence, because it’s the world’s most unconnected country. Yet America’s intelligence agencies were able to penetrate a high-level (and therefore carefully screened) conversation.

The president’s policy deserves credit as well. The Times reports South Korean envoy Chung Eui Yong’s praise of the president as “flattery, which diplomats have discovered is a key to approaching the volatile American leader,” but it is also true that the administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” created this diplomatic opportunity. Foreigners may not have had to praise President Barack Obama to get his attention, but the problem of North Korea’s nuclear advances also did not have President Obama’s attention for the eight years of his presidency as the country’s nuclear programs progressed. Former Defense Secretary and Clinton administration envoy to North Korea William Perry has commended Trump administration policy; he had already concluded last summer that the Trump administration had created the first real opportunity for negotiations with North Korea since 1999.

And, for an administration that has not distinguished itself in supporting America’s allies, it has let South Korea take the lead and have the limelight. The administration allowed South Korea to determine whether scheduled U.S.-South Korea military exercises would occur around the time of the Olympics. It was South Korea who brokered the deal with North Korea. It was South Korea standing in front of cameras at the White House announcing the president’s acceptance. It would certainly have been a stronger message had the president or the national-security adviser been standing next to America’s South Korean allies when they made the announcement, but it still merits notice that an administration often tin-eared to allied concerns allowed itself to be guided by an ally’s initiative. The South Koreans believe the North is sincere, and the Americans are willing to believe the South Koreans. They have the most to lose if negotiations collapse, and we ought to trust their judgment.

Much of the commentary stressing the president’s erratic nature and obdurate unwillingness to master policy details overlooks the fact that on Korea policy, the administration has been consistent and achieved that rarest of holy grails: a whole of government policy. The Department of State led with diplomacy, most impressively keeping South Korea and Japan on side as tensions rose (and enduring random discharges from the president). The Department of Defense increased military preparations, flowing forces and supplies to the theater (what President Eisenhower during the 1958 Berlin crisis called “quiet military measures” that the adversary would notice but that would not alarm Western publics). The Department of the Treasury has found additional economic pressures to impose on North Korea, and on China for doing business in North Korea. The UN ambassador has marshaled two rounds of unanimous Security Council sanctions—to include the ability to board ships suspected of sanctions violations, something no previous administration has attained. The vice president visibly and publicly castigated North Korea’s human-rights abuses while in South Korea; the president’s daughter showed the softer side of American engagement at her Olympics appearances. The White House has made credible the president’s willingness to use military force, and has been clear about the short timeline for North Korea to reverse course. And the president personally called the Japanese and Chinese leaders to inform them of his agreement to the South Korean brokered deal.

I still think the administration has the wrong policy, and that American interests are better served by diminishing the political value to North Korea of crossing the nuclear threshold than by adopting a policy than by adopting a policy that could start a war to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons—because choosing that would be disastrous to us and our allies. And a presidential meeting will reinforce the value to North Korea of becoming a nuclear power. President Trump has (as with his withdrawal from the trans-Pacific trade partnership) traded something for nothing. But the administration deserves credit for crafting a multifaceted policy that raised the costs of malfeasance to North Korea and China, let allied concerns predominate, and produced an opening for diplomacy on a very difficult and dangerous problem.