All this stands in sharp contrast to top Trump advisers who, like Weinberger, Casey, Haig, and Kirkpatrick during the Reagan years, fear appearing naive. In his interviews about North Korea, John Bolton has repeatedly insisted that the Trump administration is not “starry eyed” about Kim’s regime. Mike Pompeo likes to say that “this administration has its eyes wide open.” Both men have tried to lay down clear, aggressive markers for what constitutes North Korean denuclearization.
Trump has not. Like Reagan, he’s been both sunnier and vaguer than the people around him. “I never said [North Korea’s nuclear program] goes in one meeting. I think it’s going to be a process,” he remarked recently. “But the relationships are building, and that’s a very positive thing.” The New York Times has reported that “some of [Trump’s] aides say privately they worry that the president, with an eye on the history books and a flair for the theatrical, is determined to emerge [from the summit] with a victory, even if it falls short of his stated goals.” And, as with Reagan, hawks aren’t the only ones who fear that an ignorant, romantic president is stumbling towards disaster. Centrists do, too. Last month John Brennan, Obama’s former CIA director, warned that Kim “has manipulated and quite frankly duped Mr. Trump.”
But Trump’s lack of focus on the details of denuclearization may be a good thing. Like Reagan, he seems to sense that the nuclear technicalities matter less than the political relationship. In this sense, he’s following the lead of South Korean President Moon, whose country is most at risk from North Korea. Moon recognizes that whether or not a summit leads to North Korea’s rapid—or even ultimate—denuclearization, it can bring a warming of relations that will, in and of itself, decrease the chances of war. As with Able Archer in the 1980s, it is North Korean missile tests and joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that pose the greatest danger of accidental war. Just limiting these would make Northeast Asia, and the world, a lot safer.
I doubt Kim has any interest in being Gorbachev. More likely, he wants to follow Xi Jinping, and use economic development to fortify his hold on power. That requires foreign investment, probably less from the United States than from South Korea, China, and Japan. And that requires an easing of sanctions and a better relationship with Washington.
Even if Kim’s right, and greater economic openness solidifies his hold on power, his people will benefit. China’s per capita GDP is four and a half times North Korea’s. And while Beijing remains despotic, there’s a vast gap between life in authoritarian, prosperous China and impoverished, totalitarian North Korea. It’s also possible that, as foreign influences pour into North Korea, Kim’s barbaric regime will lose control and the peninsula will move towards reunification, which would constitute one of the greatest achievements of our time. Either way, improving relations with North Korea is a moral imperative. The academic evidence is clear: Economic integration is a far better instrument for democratic change than are economic sanctions.
The danger at Tuesday’s summit isn’t that Trump gets duped. It’s that hardliners like Bolton—who briefly derailed the budding Trump-Kim bromance with his threatening comments about the Libya model—do so again. Progressives can help guard against that by supporting Trump’s current path, and giving him the acclaim his fragile ego requires. As Reagan showed, uninformed optimism is sometimes wiser than weary realism. Even when the uninformed optimist is Donald Trump.