I should have been excited as I watched a historic event unfold in Singapore. The summit meeting of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un held out hope that the last ugly conflict of the Cold War can be brought to a close, alleviating the threat of nuclear war in Asia and possibly opening up the vicious North Korean dictatorship to the world.
For me, the matter is more personal. I lived in South Korea for several years in the 1990s and am forever connected to the peninsula by bonds of family and friends.
But it's hard to be optimistic. After more than two decades following Korean affairs, I remind myself that we've been here before. The Pyongyang regime has broken promises to end its nuclear program. Washington has made its share of missteps, too. And while the Trump-Kim meeting was the first by the U.S. and North Korean leaders, it wasn't the first high-level contact: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang for talks with Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, in 2000. Hopes ran high then, too.
So I keep asking myself: Is this time different?
Trump supporters argue that his approach has been quite unlike that of his predecessors, and that's why the North has come to the table. At its heart, though, Trump's strategy is more or less identical: Offer to trade nukes for economic goodies, and strangle the regime with sanctions until it agrees.
It's not clear, despite Singapore, that this approach worked. The Kims have endured isolation, poverty, even famines, for decades, and aren't easily cowed.
There is one element that's different: The parties at the table. The U.S. hadn't dealt with Kim Jong Un on the nuclear issue, and while we don't really know what persuaded him to negotiate, we can't assume that he has the same motivations as his father. Some North Korea watchers are convinced the younger Kim truly wants to develop his economy and bring the country in from the cold, and he can't do that without the lifting of sanctions and U.S. support.
Then there's Trump. He's different too, but not in the way most people think. It's not his "fire and fury" threats and "maximum pressure" campaign that distinguish him from his predecessors. It's his break with Washington's foreign-policy traditions. As we witnessed most obviously at the G-7 summit in Canada, Trump has scant regard for allies, past agreements or international commitments. More, he seems willing to toss into the shredder the foreign-policy guidebook Washington has followed since Truman.
That might make Trump willing to do what no other president in the modern period would in order to get a deal with Kim, and that may open opportunities with Pyongyang the U.S. has never had. At a press briefing Monday evening in Singapore, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wouldn't say whether the U.S. would offer to pull troops out of South Korea--a long-standing North Korean demand--as part of a nuclear deal. Trump, in his post-summit comments Tuesday, acknowledged he wants to bring the troops home, but said it wasn't part of the equation at the moment.
Still, the fact that this is even being discussed is remarkable. No previous president would have considered so great a deviation from Washington's global security policy.
Handshakes and smiles aside, it's far from clear where the relationship is heading. The joint document signed Tuesday by Trump and Kim is a masterpiece of diplomatic vagueness.
For seven decades, Washington has equated its own interests with the preservation of a U.S. global economic and security system. Trump does not. That may be why this time with North Korea is different. But I'm not sure it's a cause for hope.
Editorial on 06/14/2018
Print Headline: Different, but better?