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Trump Has a Chance for a History-Making Deal With North Korea

President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un can truly make history during their talks in Vietnam come late February. But transforming an adversarial relationship built on tough talk, nuclear threats, and the danger of a Second Korean War that could kill millions won’t be easy. It can only be done with ingenuity, outside-the-box thinking, and that X factor that only Trump brings to the table.

And that’s just for starters, as history tells us no negotiation with North Korea is easy. Success can only be assured if both sides make concessions that are realistic, verifiable, and not perceived as a loss to the one granting them.

Thankfully, we have a president who doesn’t care about past tensions or how other administrations have handled North Korea policy—and that is a big advantage. Trump’s mix of foreign policy realism [1], naivete, and obsession with dominating the news cycle create what can only be described as the weirdest but best chance for real peace on the Korean Peninsula in a generation.

Honestly, the best course of action would be Trump taking the old foreign policy playbook and lighting it on fire. His first summit with Kim essentially did just that, baffling the foreign policy elites here in Washington in what at the time I thought was a Hail Mary [2] that could end in spectacular failure. I honestly wanted him to walk out [3] if he could not get major concessions upfront.

I must admit that I was wrong. Trump’s meeting with Kim in Singapore, though it didn’t instantly denuclearize the north, did create the conditions to build trust and reduce tensions that could have spiraled into an armed conflict the likes of which hadn’t been seen since World War II. No matter what you think of Trump, that is clear progress. And while things have not gone as smoothly as I would have hoped since Singapore, this second summit presents a golden opportunity to get diplomacy back on track, creating a solid foundation for the future.

So what should those all-important deliverables be this time around? What should history say about this event when we look back decades from now? The most likely outcome of a second summit would be North Korea dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear facility—something Kim has already put on the table—in exchange for some form of sanctions relief. While Washington might balk at weakening its maximum pressure campaign before full denuclearization occurs, an action-for-action approach seems like the most realistic path forward. Each side in such a scenario gets a clear win, and both can claim back home that they were able to get a core concession from the other. It also allows America and North Korea to test each other’s willingness to follow through with important promises made, which could build up to even harder compromises down the road.

I, however, want to see something special happen. I want history to look back at this summit with pride, the moment that one of the last places the Cold War is still waged finally comes to an end. If Trump and Kim agree to end the Korean War once and for all, it will truly make the historical record. While a peace treaty is most likely impossible for America to commit to, as it would need Senate approval, a peace declaration acknowledging that there is no longer a state of war on the Korean Peninsula would be a game changer. Such a declaration would show a clear intent to transform the relationship and create a solid foundation for the much harder work towards denuclearization that is yet to come.

There will, of course, be those who are rooting for President Trump to fail. Never Trumpers, most on the left, and countless others won’t want to give the president credit if things go well, fearing that any wind in his political sails could help reelect him in 2020. I would ask them to consider the alternative, and just how close we came to war in 2017 [4] and early 2018 [5]. What happens if these talks fall apart and both sides go back to threats of nuclear annihilation, missile tests, and military exercises? I don’t see any room for failure. Simply stated, we have no more room left to run. A transformed relationship with North Korea and real peace on the Korean Peninsula is the only option.

We must, as everyone loves to say, put all options on the table—towards a compromise all sides can live with.

Harry J. Kazianis [6] is director of Korea Studies at the Center for the National Interest. He also serves as executive editor for their publishing arm, The National Interest [7]. The views express in this op-ed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @Grecianformula [8]

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Trump Has a Chance for a History-Making Deal With North Korea"

#1 Comment By SteveM On February 11, 2019 @ 1:26 pm

It’s apparent that Kim wants to take North Korea in a new direction of normalization with South Korea and launch more robust economic growth. His meetings with President Moon have been cordial and productive. (Without the U.S. sticking its fat, greasy thumb in the soup.)

China and Russia are much better positioned to facilitate the normalization process if required because unlike the U.S., they have some diplomatic legitimacy as well as being direct neighbors with Korea.

The U.S. as the incompetent Global Cop Gorilla that it is, can only wreck the initiative. When Kim meets with Trump he should only nod respectively then go about the business of negotiating with South Korea directly. Both Koreas should avoid U.S. intervention in the peace process as much as possible.

Let Trump claim any success as his own even though it will be without merit.

Hopefully, a genuine rapprochement between the Korea’s will evolve in spite of the U.S. and its ham-fisted “diplomacy”.

#2 Comment By Kurt Gayle On February 11, 2019 @ 1:27 pm

“There will, of course, be those who are rooting for President Trump to fail. Never Trumpers, most on the left, and countless others won’t want to give the president credit if things go well, fearing that any wind in his political sails could help reelect him in 2020.”

People like TAC’s Daniel Larison.

#3 Comment By sglover On February 11, 2019 @ 1:37 pm

The eternal optimism of the saps in the Trump cult is always so cute and precious. It’s like watching puppies chasing after reflected sunlight on a dewy April morning….

#4 Comment By Ninth and Hennepin On February 11, 2019 @ 2:38 pm

Our best option is to maintain the status quo and contain North Korea for decades until it inevitably collapses.

“Taking the old foreign policy playbook and lighting it on fire” is more likely to start a Second Korean War than to lead to a diplomatic breakthrough.

I’d say the same no matter who is in the White House.

#5 Comment By One Guy On February 11, 2019 @ 2:44 pm

Trump bankrupted a casino. American banks won’t lend him money. He couldn’t run a foundation, and is prevented by law from trying again. Good people won’t work for him, and several have written books about how incompetent he is.

He sounds perfect. What could go wrong?

#6 Comment By Paul McDonnell On February 11, 2019 @ 3:39 pm

Trump is only interested in looking successful – it will be a white wash with no substance. NK will have 100+ ICBMs in a few years and US will be in another tenuous deterrence situation.

#7 Comment By Kouros On February 11, 2019 @ 4:57 pm

Scant hopes. As Russians said it before (and Iranians and EU can attest to; Qaddafi is dead), Americans cannot be trusted to be honest business partners.

#8 Comment By Emil Bogdan On February 11, 2019 @ 8:19 pm

Spot on. The two prima donnas speak the same language, understand each other’s personality cults and preeminent need for realistic survival, thus, they can get somewhere. When Trump first floated Israeli-Palestinian peace back in the primaries, I had the same thought: “Jesus save us, this freaking narcissistic idiot is probably better positioned than anyone else to pull it off, holy crap!”

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 11, 2019 @ 9:44 pm

Well, possibly. I think we are a long way from a serious deal — maybe not. But this process was always going to be long.

I do think its utter nonsense that had this president not been elected we would be at war with North Korea.

More baiting for a Nobel Peace prize — good grief, one hopes not.

Long over due.

#10 Comment By Tony On February 12, 2019 @ 7:15 am

I hope Trump is able to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula.

But he is making a disastrous mistake in abandoning the INF treaty and in refusing to extend the START treaty on long-range nuclear missiles for another 5 years.

#11 Comment By Kurt Gayle On February 13, 2019 @ 12:23 pm

sglover says (Feb 11, 1:37 pm): “The eternal optimism of the saps in the Trump cult is always so cute and precious.”

“Trump has no more of a cult than his last two predecessors did, and less of one among professional conservatives than the deified Reagan.”

From “A New Conservative Agenda,” Daniel McCarthy (former editor of TAC), First Things, March 2019