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Sanders’ Smart North Korea Policy

Bernie Sanders was recently interviewed by 60 Minutes, and among other things he made a very good statement about North Korea and diplomacy:

Sanders also said he would meet with Kim Jong Un as president.

“Yeah. I mean I’ve criticized Trump for everything… under the sun,” Sanders said. “But meeting with people who are antagonistic is, to me, not a bad thing to do. I think, unfortunately, Trump went into that meeting unprepared. I think it was a photo opportunity and did not have the– kind of the diplomatic work necessary to make it a success. But I do not have a problem with sitting down with adversaries all over the world.”

Sanders’ statement strikes the right balance in acknowledging that there is nothing inherently wrong with meeting with hostile foreign leaders while rejecting the president’s failed pseudo-engagement. Some other Democratic politicians and a few other presidential candidates have been so eager to fault Trump for his incompetent dealings with North Korea that they repudiate engagement itself. Sanders recognizes the difference between careful, well-informed diplomatic engagement and the president’s irresponsible desire to put on a show for the cameras, and he correctly endorses the former at the same time that he dismisses Trump’s empty stagecraft. This shows that Sanders understands the importance of diplomacy done the right way, and it shows that he assesses the president’s performance on the merits and not just out of knee-jerk rejectionism. Sanders’ North Korea position is much more realistic than the administration’s, and it is far more flexible.
Van Jackson comments on the answer:

Sanders’ answer in the new interview echoed the points made in the New York Times questionnaire. In the answers to the Times‘ questions, Sanders said that he would not keep tightening sanctions until North Korea gave up its nuclear weapons and missile programs, and he said that he would support lifting sanctions in exchange for a freeze on the development of fissile material. Sanders sees that North Korea isn’t going to make huge concessions without receiving something in return, and so he doesn’t insist on conditioning sanctions relief on North Korean disarmament. He still talks about “the eventual elimination of all North Korean nuclear weapons,” but it is clear from his other answers that he sees this as a long-term aspirational goal rather than insisting that it be a precondition for making progress on other issues.

The central difference between Sanders’ proposed North Korea policy and the one that the Trump administration is carrying out is that Sanders sees the importance of doing the hard work of laying the foundations for successful negotiations, and he is committed to supporting that work. The administration has tried to do North Korea diplomacy on the fly without any of the necessary preparation, and it has predictably led nowhere. Sanders has set a more realistic and achievable goal in the near term, he has left the door open to direct negotiations, and he has shown a willingness to be flexible in offering North Korea incentives to make concessions. This is the smart North Korea policy that the U.S. should have, and it is the one that it currently lacks.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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