Fiorella Beccaglia Opinion Editor
President Trump arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, to discuss denuclearization with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, capping off months of threats and weapons tests. After the two leaders met in June, 2018, tensions eased dramatically—the North stopped testing nuclear weapons, and the United States stopped military actions with the South. However, the leaders did not figure out a clear path to denuclearization and there’s no reasons for the President to claim victory just yet.
In their first meeting, the North Korean leader agreed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” according to CNN Politics. Trump will look to convince Kim to abandon his nuclear program in its entirety. However, a common definition of “denuclearization” doesn’t yet exist, and Kim hasn’t committed to a timeline of any sort.
Nothing illustrates the hypocrisy of the Republican Party during the era of Donald Trump more than their willingness to give the President a complete pass on his bizarre statements about Kim Jong-un. After his first summit with the North Korean leader in June, 2018, let’s remember that Trump revealed that he had “fell in love” with the very man the GOP labeled a “nut job,” a “lunatic” and whom he had called “rocket-man” himself. “I was really being tough and so was he. And we would go back and forth. And then we fell in love, O.K.? No, really. He wrote me beautiful letters. And they’re great letters. And then we fell in love,” the President said in Sept. 2018 on Fox News Live.
It doesn’t take a lot to imagine how Republicans would have reacted if former President Barack Obama had made a similar statement. Of course, Trump is known for conflicting if not blatantly untrue statements, but there’s something especially concerning about this kind of inconsistency when nuclear weapons are involved. And unlike Trump, the GOP has been quite clear about how it feels about Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions.
Heading into his second meeting with his beloved Kim, the President is planning to pitch him on a vision of North Korean modernization, White House officials have said Trump dangled the prospect of material wealth for Kim’s impoverished country, telling reporters, “I think he’ll have a country that will set a lot of records for speed in terms of an economy.” Yet it’s not clear how the President is proposing to help Kim realize his economic goals. On the other hand, the despotic leader’s plan seems to be the same as his father’s and grandfather’s: he wants the unconditional reunification of the Korean Peninsula under the control of his government in Pyongyang. Nuclear weapons are indispensable to achieving his vision. In international relations, logical diplomats do not haggle away their fundamental interests; only liars or fools do that.
I believe Trump’s intentions of solving the nuclear crisis through peaceful diplomacy are essentially good, it is what the Obama Administration and basically anyone with common sense would want. However, the way he is approaching the issue is not how a real politician would do it. While Republicans were all too willing to attack Obama’s approach to dealing with North Korea, they have been predictably silent as Trump speaks lovingly—literally—about the North Korean leader.
Trump has banked his North Korea policy on selling Kim Jong-un a future of prosperity and wealth. But legislation Trump signed bars companies from investing in the country because of its abysmal record of human rights violations, an issue the President has given minimal attention to in talks with Pyongyang. I think he is unrealistic with many of his goals, his language is unnecessarily adorned and charged with idealism, and that is not the way to manage international relations with a country that has been a threat to world security for so long.
As the second Trump-Kim meeting approaches, North Korea looks to have the upper hand again. Kim Jong-un has been making serious statements. If the U.S. “persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our Republic,” he warned in his New Year’s address in January, “we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state and for achieving peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula.”
The Trump Administration, for its part, is quite understaffed. The Senate has yet to confirm an assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific. Stephen Biegun, the special representative for North Korea, is very respected, but has been working the file for just six months. The North Korean side has brushed off American entreaties both for a nuclear inventory and for setting up substantive working groups ahead of the summit in Hanoi. All of that is to its advantage.
If big decisions are made in this second summit, meaning if Kim and Trump are left alone in a room, the North Koreans may game well the American president. And if no big decisions are reached, North Korea will still win, because it will keep forging ahead with its nuclear and missile-production programs.
The rational position on this heated issue should be that American forces remain in the peninsula for as long as the U.S. and South Korea agree that their presence is in their respective security interests, where a peace proclamation comes about this second summit or not. The U.S. should resume a policy of maximum pressure. North Korea’s trade with China, by far its most important economic partner, reportedly dropped by nearly 60% January and September of 2018. The government in Pyongyang is forced to spend down strategic reserves. A suffocation campaign should be enforced ruthlessly.
In its selfish pursuit to make the world safe only for itself, the North Korean government is known for using a diplomacy of many broken promises to consolidate gains, extract concessions or provoke new crises. At the moment, they seem to be under control, but the mood could shift gears to crisis as soon as that seems beneficial to them. President Trump should be careful with his beloved “rocket-man”.