Is Trump Capable Of Realism On North Korea?

The peace process in Korea requires a different brand of American diplomacy.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands last week at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands last week at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.
Handout / Reuters

In the afterglow of the summit between the leaders of North and South Korea, as we await the even more historic meeting between President Donald Trump and Pyongyang’s Kim Jong-un, there are three distinct risks.

One is that a genuine breakthrough occurs and Trump reaps the political credit. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, tongue only partly in cheek, imagines Trump getting the Nobel Peace Prize.

An opposite risk is that Trump wants a deal so badly that he is willing to be played for a fool. A number of conservative commentators have warned about this. Steven F. Hayes, in The Weekly Standard, warned, “Trump’s comments last week suggest he’s a sucker waiting to be played. The president volunteered that Kim Jong-un ‘has really been very open and I think very honorable based on what we are seeing.’ There is nothing remotely honorable about Kim Jong-un.”

A third risk is that Trump, in a moment of characteristic pique, will react badly to something Kim says at the summit and will walk out, undermining an admittedly long-shot chance to reduce tensions in one of the world’s most fraught regions.

And of course, with Trump you never know. Right after the North-South leaders’ summit, Trump did exactly the opposite of what any seasoned diplomat would advise him to do: He raised expectations sky high. Friday morning, Trump blurted out an imbecile tweet: “KOREAN WAR TO END!!!!”

If things don’t go so smoothly, will he revert to insulting tweets about Little Rocket Man? Or will he even remember last week’s euphoric tweets?

Let’s get a grip and take a hard look at each of these risks. If a Korean peace process does move forward, history may give Trump a bit of credit for the use of nuclear bluster that suggested to Kim that Trump might be even crazier than Kim is. But it’s mainly other stars that are in rare alignment for a possible deal.

One of those stars is that economic sanctions have finally started to bite seriously on North Korea’s economy. Kim, a relatively new leader, would like to deliver greater prosperity to his long-suffering people, who are all too aware of the prodigious economy just across the 38th parallel to their south. Another star is the rare presence of a left-wing leader in South Korea, Moon Jae-in, who was willing to make overtures to the North, including an invitation for it to participate in the recent Winter Olympics.

Americans who have long been critical of the global overreach of the U.S. should welcome that the two main players in this diplomacy are North and South Korean leaders, who know far more about their divided country and have far higher stakes in a peace process than Washington does. Imagine the effrontery of the Koreans wanting to take matters into their own hands!

If some kind of a deal is indeed struck, this will be mainly a Korean show. Trump will only be able to bless it, or wreck it.

But what of the other risks? Despite the raised expectations, it’s clear that no final deal will come out of Trump’s meeting with Kim. The path toward a true rapprochement between the two Koreas, much less a nuclear-free peninsula, will be the product of complex ongoing diplomacy involving both the Koreans and the great powers as guarantors. As innumerable commentators have pointed out, North Korean leaders have dangled this offer before, only to pull it back each time.

The new role of the South and Kim’s desire for economic and diplomatic normalization makes a deal slightly more possible this time. But the details of what denuclearization really means, with what sort of inspection regime, remain the usual thorny ones.

And that brings up the other risk. The kind of deal required is all too reminiscent of a deal that Trump detests ― the nuclear deal with Iran. North Korea, if anything, is far less trustworthy than Iran, and far more of a total dictatorship.

Granted, consistency is not exactly Trump’s strong suit, but would he really trust Kim to keep his word? And should he?

President Donald Trump delivers a speech at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, on Nov. 8, 2017.
President Donald Trump delivers a speech at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, on Nov. 8, 2017.
POOL New / Reuters

This era necessarily requires a brand of diplomacy based on the school of foreign policy known as Realism. It means dealing pragmatically with regimes whose values you hate, because you lack the capacity to make over the world in the American image.

This represents a dramatic turn from the more idealistic visions of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who hoped to export democracy and human rights to the world, and a rejection of the regime-change visions of George W. Bush. But a foreign policy based on Realism requires hard questions as well as deft, complex and patient diplomacy — once again, not exactly Trump’s trademark.

Do we really want a détente with one of the most odious regimes in the world, North Korea, assuming we can get one? The sad answer is yes. We are not going to alter or destroy that regime, and some would argue that less isolation could moderate North Korea over time (though that hypothesis failed when it came to China.)

The world today has scores of thuggish regimes. Some of these are our allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. We have an off-again, on-again intelligence partnership with Pakistan, which harbors radical Islamists. We can’t quite decide whether to swallow hard and live with a brutal regime in Syria or try to destroy it.

Despite Trump’s sheer cynicism ― a precondition for a good Realist foreign policy (see Kissinger, Henry) ― he is about the last leader in the world who can competently carry out such a policy. Take the case of his alliance with Vladimir Putin.

It would be one thing if Trump’s overtures to Putin were in service of a new, post-Gorbachev entente with an increasingly authoritarian Russia. We may not like Putin, but let’s recognize Russia’s legitimate interests, and damp down tensions. But that is not what’s occurring at all. Trump’s coddling of Russia began as sheer opportunism for his business empire and morphed into sheer opportunism to serve his political goals. The U.S. as a nation gets nothing in return ― not even a respite from Kremlin election meddling.

The Korea peace process could go in any number of directions. One thing is clear: If it stays alive at all, it will take a long time. Hold that Nobel.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His new book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?