Trump's Triumph, Trump's Folly

Either the president has succeeded with North Korea where his predecessors have failed, or he has fallen into the same trap that ensnared them.

Donald Trump attends a state dinner in Seoul in November 2017. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

All politics, even geopolitics, is domestic. (Sorry, Tip.) Friday’s historic meeting between North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In represents an important milestone on the Korean Peninsula, but it is also an important moment for President Trump, for whom North Korean proliferation has been a major foreign-policy challenge.

Discerning what the latest news means for Trump, however, is no easy feat. Using nearly the identical set of publicly available facts, one can make a plausible argument that either Trump has succeeded where others have failed for decades, or that Trump is falling into the same trap his predecessors did. In fact, that is just what I have tried to do here.

The Korean Rapprochement Is Trump’s Vindication

On North Korea, Trump Is the Only One Falling for His Rhetoric

The Korean Rapprochement Is Trump’s Vindication

When he was running for president, Donald Trump promised to bring unorthodox, fresh thinking to global problems, shaking up the stale consensus from the right and left. Most people can agree that that the results have been tumultuous, but a landmark meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea is a major win for his strategy. For years, American leaders vacillated within a narrow mainstream range, but Trump, with a series of brash threats, has produced real progress—including a historic moment as the leaders of the two nations stepped into each other’s countries.

“South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula,” North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in a joint statement.

The president took a deserved victory lap on Twitter:

Trump’s strategy was a modern reinvention of Richard Nixon’s “madman” theory for dealing with the Soviet Union. And it was flamboyantly batty: Trump called Kim “Little Rocket Man” at the United Nations, threatened “fire and fury” against the North, and boasted about the comparative sizes of their nuclear buttons, as the North’s weapons capacity increased.

But unlike Nixon’s feint, Trump’s worked. The North agreed to talks ahead of the Olympics, welcomed then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo for secret talks, and is negotiating a summit meeting between Trump and Kim. Then came Friday’s meeting. The speed with which the shift has happened, after decades of stalemate, is a testament to the efficacy of Trump’s stratagem. Not only is there progress toward ending the war, but North Korea consented to language about a “nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”

While Trump has tended to pick fights with allies, his work with China to pressure North Korea deserves particular notice. He cultivated Xi Jinping and persuaded China to use its muscle to further isolate North Korea and force it to the negotiating table. In what could be a sign of personal growth, Trump even managed to share the credit, without boasting, in another Friday tweet: “Please do not forget the great help that my good friend, President Xi of China, has given to the United States, particularly at the Border of North Korea. Without him it would have been a much longer, tougher, process!”

As Trump said on Fox and Friends on Thursday, a date and time for the Kim-Trump summit isn’t set yet, but negotiations are ongoing. That meeting can and should serve as the crowning moment of the process. The statement from the leaders on Friday leaves many details unresolved, but it is a huge step forward. Just a few months ago, many of foreign policy’s wise men and women were wringing their hands, afraid Trump would start a nuclear war. Instead, he has done what they couldn’t, and nearly achieved peace between the Koreas.

On North Korea, Trump Is the Only One Falling for His Rhetoric

As a candidate, Donald Trump promised to bring a fresh approach to intractable foreign-policy problems. Rhetorically, that has been true, with the president offering threats and bluster. What is clear now, and was clear to many people then, was that Trump really had very little understanding of what he was talking about. On Friday, after a historic meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea, Trump tried to take a victory lap. In reality, he’s walking into an old North Korean trap, showing how little he knows.

The president tweeted:

Trump’s madman act, including bringing the U.S. and North Korea closer to nuclear war than at any time in recent memory, may indeed have convinced Kim Jong-Un to make some overtures to both Washington and Seoul. But as Trump would know if he studied his history, his predecessors, and South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s, have had some success getting North Korean leaders to talk. Getting them to act is another thing entirely. What emerged from Friday’s meeting was a concise statement. Ending a war requires a treaty, and that’s something entirely different.

As Nicholas Eberstadt wrote this week in The New York Times, North and South Korea have embraced and offered warm, fuzzy statements several times before: 1992, 2000, 2007. “All of these deals were then trash-canned,” Eberstadt wrote. “The North Korean promises in them were worthless, indeed deceitful. These agreements only seemed to hold force until, well, they no longer did, when Pyongyang unilaterally decided to ignore, violate or repudiate them.” Trump is quick (and correct) to point to his predecessors’ failures to contain North Korea’s nuclear program, but he hasn’t studied the reasons well enough to avoid falling into the same traps.

The speed with which matters have progressed from fear of a shooting war to hand-holding in the DMZ should be reason for uneasiness, not optimism. Few major diplomatic breakthroughs happen overnight. Besides, if Trump was able to convince Kim that he was just crazy enough to act, that impression will not quickly dissolve: North Korea would reasonably conclude that it should take any American promises with a full cellar’s worth of salt.

Consider also the statement that Moon and Kim released: “South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” Optimists promptly focused on the use of the word “denuclearization,” which is notable, but worth no more than the paper it is printed on. North Korea did not explicitly commit to ending its own nuclear program, and as Jeffrey Lewis has noted, “denuclearization” has a different meaning in Korean negotiations than it does in plain English. Nor did Kim mention denuclearization in his own remarks.

It’s easy to deride this as diplomatic jargon, but ignore its import at your own peril. Of course, Trump has happily disregarded such fragile but essential diplomatic fictions in the past, too. The president had no one to warn him about this, though, because not only did former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ignore career diplomats, but Trump froze Tillerson out of Korean negotiations in favor of Mike Pompeo, who was then CIA director but was confirmed as secretary of state Thursday.

Trump deserves credit for persuading China to put fresh pressure on North Korea. “Please do not forget the great help that my good friend, President Xi of China, has given to the United States, particularly at the Border of North Korea. Without him it would have been a much longer, tougher, process!” he tweeted Friday. But here again, Trump’s inconstancy is a danger. Even as the president relies on Beijing to help seal a deal on the Korean Peninsula, he’s pushing the U.S. toward a trade war with China.

The developments on Friday increase the risks of Trump’s as-yet unscheduled meeting with Kim. U.S. aides have expressed skepticism that the meeting would ever occur, but the positive encounter in the DMZ probably makes it more likely, and on Thursday, Trump said Washington and Pyongyang have narrowed down a series of dates and locations. That summit offers many chances for disaster. If Trump and Kim can’t reach a deal, it’s unclear what the next step is. But Trump, despite his boasts about his negotiating prowess, has proven to be a pushover in face-to-face meetings with foreign leaders. The fact that he is taking North Korea’s overtures Friday at face value does not impart confidence that he can outfox Kim.

This doesn’t mean that Friday’s meeting in the DMZ is a bad thing. It would be churlish to argue otherwise. But the president’s haste to congratulate himself is not so much a sign that his hard line against North Korea solved the problem as a sign that he has bought into his own rhetoric.