This post has been updated to reflect the news that Trump will meet with Kim Jong Un.
One of President Trump's biggest foreign policy wins as president — and biggest wins, period — came back in August. That was when the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously, including frequent holdouts China and Russia, to impose new sanctions on North Korea. More sanctions soon followed, as did a thawing of relations between North and South Korea at the recent Olympic Games in South Korea. And through it all, Trump has gotten credit for real progress on the North Korea threat, including from some critics.
Now Trump is jumping headlong into the situation — and with little guarantee of continued success.
The White House confirmed Thursday night that Trump plans to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in what would be the first meeting between a sitting American president and a North Korean leader. The date and place have yet to be determined, but South Korean officials said it would be “by May.”
On the positive side, North Korea has at least expressed a willingness to move toward denuclearization and has promised to pause its nuclear and missile tests during negotiations. On the negative side, critics note the North Korean regime has long sought such a summit and worry that it could simply be used for propaganda by Kim. The regime also, as The Post's Anna Fifield put it this week, “has reneged on every deal it has ever signed.”
Regardless of what awaits, some foreign policy experts say Trump has helped move the needle — however temporarily or tentatively — either because of his “madman” approach to North Korea and/or the sanctions spurred by the Trump administration's efforts.
“He does deserve credit,” Ian Bremmer, the head of the Eurasia Group and a Trump critic, said earlier this week when it was first reported that North Korea was interested in talks. “I think North Korea’s openness in the Olympics and summitry with South Korea, as well as potentially direct talks with the U.S., are the result of Trump's approach.”
Before the Olympics, South Korean President Moon Jae-in credited Trump with helping open the door to North Korean participation — and eventually a joint North Korea-South Korea women's hockey team. The credit, perhaps unsurprisingly, was solicited by Trump himself, as The Post has reported. But that doesn't mean it hasn't been deserved, say experts such as Bremmer.
At the same time, Bremmer and others noted that Trump's approach is both high-reward and high-risk — as tends to be the case with the madman strategy. Richard Nixon popularized this approach, which essentially involves making your opponents believe you are irrational and capable of anything. Trump has spoken publicly about annihilating North Korea and inflicting “fire and fury” upon it. He has even derided Kim as “Little Rocket Man.”
Scott Snyder, a Korea scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the shifting tone toward Pyongyang has clearly been noticed.
“Certainly, Trump should have introduced uncertainty and challenged North Korean assumptions about what they can expect and whether the U.S. will simply accept vulnerability to a North Korean nuclear threat,” Snyder said. “That could be why North Korea has claimed victory while stopping short of developing a full capability to threaten the U.S.”
Charles K. Armstrong, a Korea expert at Columbia University, differed somewhat. He said his sources suggest North Korea never took Trump's threatening behavior seriously and that it always believed that Trump's generals would prevent him from launching preemptive attacks. But Armstrong said economic pressure almost certainly helped.
“More likely it was the increasingly severe and intrusive economic sanctions that persuaded the North Koreans to come around,” he said. “So I think Trump deserves some credit, but not for his threats of 'fire and fury.' ”
Snyder said it's “premature” to judge whether Trump should get more credit beyond what happened at the Olympics, because much has yet to play out. Bremmer also noted that the whole thing could fall apart rather easily. Trump's diplomatic skills have certain proven rocky at times, including his talks with the leaders of Australia and Mexico and his decision to share highly classified information with the Russians during an Oval Office meeting.
“It’s a risky strategy,” Bremmer said, with a “greater chance of breakthrough but also greater chance of war — and also one that the Trump administration isn’t well-staffed to execute on.”
That has always been the potentially catastrophic downside of Trump's approach. Thus far, his verbose, big-stick approach may be helping, but direct talks with Kim will almost certainly require a far different, more studied form of diplomacy. And if the summit does happen, it will pose a massive challenge for Trump's incrementally successful North Korea strategy.