There is a reasonable chance that this week’s Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, could yield a solid interim agreement. Will Democrats support it?
It is understandably hard for many to support a Donald Trump initiative. This is one of the most corrupt and potentially dangerous administrations in U.S. history. If Trump does something right, it causes severe cognitive dissonance. But we are going to have to struggle with this psychological tension during the Hanoi Summit.
A lot is on the line. History is being made by the Koreas. Seoul wants to fundamentally change its relationship to Pyongyang. And Trump, like it or not, is facilitating their reconciliation by pursuing an agreement to finally end the Korean War and limit the North’s nuclear arsenal.
Can Trump pull it off? Here’s what’s on the table: North Korea would take meaningful steps to shut down its production of plutonium — a critical component of its nuclear bombs — and the United States would ease some sanctions. Meanwhile, both countries would establish liaison offices and sign a declaration formally ending a war that began nearly 70 years ago.
Trump will not come home with complete denuclearization or the new relationship with North Korea that was promised at the Singapore Summit last June, but this deal would be a major step towards those goals.
Both sides have strong incentives for reaching an agreement. For North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, diplomacy with the United States presents an opportunity for relief from endless sanctions, increased access to global markets, economic integration with South Korea and a geopolitical counterbalance to China. Trump, besieged by investigations and deeply unpopular, wants a foreign policy win. He wants to make a deal, and now he needs one. Trump’s premature declarations of success with North Korea (claims contradicted even by his own intelligence chiefs) have raised the stakes further. A deal would put substance behind his self-aggrandizing boasts and prove some of his critics wrong.
Democrats have obvious reasons for not supporting the summit. They do not trust Kim or Trump and do not want another photo op to boost Trump’s approval ratings. Some relish the chance to get to the right of Trump so that they can claim to be more hawkish than him on a highly-visible national security issue.
Democrats should not let politics undermine reasonable diplomacy. Some members of the House Armed Services Committee have protested Trump’s suspension of joint military exercises. But the South Korean government of President Moon Jae-in fully supports the suspension. Moon correctly regards joint exercises as an impediment to inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea talks. Suspending these exercises is a low-risk and potentially high-reward move. We may sacrifice some readiness, says retired Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of United Nations and U.S. forces in Korea until last fall, but the diplomatic gains could be substantial.
Just as in the 1990s when the suspension of the Team Spirit exercises helped set the stage for the Agreed Framework, a more restrained approach to exercises can keep tensions low and ensure the diplomatic window remains open. According to Brooks, “There has to be room for diplomatic maneuvering, diplomatic action to occur. And if creating leverage or traction comes from these adjustments to the exercises, then that’s a risk that has to be consciously taken.”
In many cases, Democratic criticisms represent an earnest attempt to counter Trump’s recklessness. The administration’s engagement with North Korea has been haphazard and contradictory. It has neither adhered to standard diplomatic procedures nor been properly staffed. These concerns are legitimate. But criticism can be voiced in a constructive way, as part of support for the diplomatic process and for our South Korean ally, as dozens of pro-diplomacy organizations recently urged.
For South Korea, a collapse of the negotiations could mean an abrupt end to inter-Korean reconciliation - or the choice of breaking with the United States to continue it. For the United States, a collapse would mean a dashed chance for restraining the North Korean nuclear program and a possible return to “fire and fury” rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang. The risk of war would rise. Neither is an acceptable outcome.
For better or worse, the North Koreans want to deal with Trump because he is not beholden to a foreign policy establishment that refuses to budge on big picture issues such as ending the war, adjusting troop levels, and normalizing relations. Some fear Trump will make too many concessions in his discussions with Kim. Trump’s openness to heretical ideas is certainly a result of his own ignorance of longstanding U.S. policy, but the outside perspective he represents now holds the most promise for resolving tensions with North Korea.
Moon has also embraced a major departure from conventional wisdom — he sees denuclearization as inextricably linked to peace rather than a prerequisite for it. He has adjusted to Trump and tried to harness him gently. And his innovation has born significant fruit: the demilitarization of Panmunjom, the dismantling of 22 guard posts in the DMZ, a de facto non-aggression agreement between the North and South, joint minesweeping and remains recovery operations, numerous inter-Korean cultural and athletic exchanges, reunions of divided families, and, for the first time in years, nuclear talks between the U.S. and DPRK.
These discussions have hardly been smooth. But after wasting months, making unrealistic demands that North Korea disarm before the U.S. made any efforts to transform the US-DPRK relationship, the administration has wisely shifted tactics.
The talking points provided by the White House this week line up nicely with Moon’s objectives: “This summit aims to make further progress on the commitments the two leaders made in Singapore: transformed relations, a lasting and stable peace, and the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Special envoy Stephen Biegun’s recent speech at Stanford similarly stressed the linkage between ending the war, improving the bilateral relationship, and limiting the North’s nuclear weapons program. This is a step in the right direction.
Democrats should consider Trump’s heterodox approaches, not shun them. Some early presidential candidates already have found success by endorsing major domestic reforms such as “Medicare for All” and taxing the super-rich. They wisely recognize that the status quo just isn’t cutting it. Their new perspective is encouraging and should be expanded to foreign policy.
Why? Because if a Democrat is elected in 2020, she or he is going to inherit this process. Do they want U.S.-North Korea talks to lead to shattered diplomacy, distrustful allies, and smoldering tensions that could lead to nuclear war? Or do they want negotiations to be an ongoing step-by-step process toward peace and denuclearization? The next U.S. president should hone Trump’s outsider perspective and embrace nuclear talks as a bridge to far-reaching changes. He or she could continue these negotiations with the diplomatic skill and thoughtful strategy the current administration lacks.
Democrats can begin by taking a constructive view of the upcoming summit, acknowledging its flaws while resolving to keep the diplomatic window open. Even if that means supporting a deal made by a president they otherwise detest.