Any way you cut it, President Donald Trump is entitled to significant credit for the historic opening between the two Koreas.
The rush to assign plaudits for the breakthrough that led to a meeting between North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in last week – and Trump’s own planned summit with Kim – reflects building hopes that Pyongyang’s willingness to talk about dismantling its nuclear arsenal may be genuine.
On Monday, Moon, who was once accused by Trump of appeasing Kim, poured effusive praise on the President.
“President Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize. The only thing we need is peace,” Moon said at a Cabinet meeting.
On Saturday night, Trump’s supporters at a rally in Michigan serenaded the President with chants of “Nobel, Nobel, Nobel” as he hit out at news organizations he said were not giving him sufficient credit for his strategy of tough rhetoric and strong sanctions designed to bring Kim to the table.
“What do you think President Trump had to do with it? I’ll tell you what. Like how about everything? And even President Moon says that and he’s been great,” Trump said.
Whether Trump deserves as much credit as he’s claiming or is wise to bullishly declare a new era of denuclearized peace is open to question since many pitfalls still lie ahead.
Still, the summit between Kim and Moon keeps alive the possibility of a legacy win for Trump that would rank as one of the top presidential achievements since World War II.
If he were to preside over the verifiable destruction of the North’s nuclear and missile programs, formally end the 1950-53 Korean War and usher in the destruction of the world’s last Cold War-era frontier, Trump would claim a feat that has eluded all of his most recent predecessors.
The President and other key players in the initiative would also be shoo-ins for the Nobel Peace Prize as Moon suggests. How Trump would love to join his nemesis Barack Obama on the list of honorees.
Such accolades are years away, and months of treacherous and intricate diplomacy looms if negotiators are to defy grim historical precedent. Every previous diplomatic effort to ease the Korean standoff has foundered on effectively verifying the North’s willingness to dismantle its weapons programs – and its propensity to cheat. There is no sign yet that the Trump administration has solved that fundamental problem – despite its repeated vows not to make the same mistakes as its predecessors.
But to judge by Trump’s reaction, you might think that a final, comprehensive deal with North Korea is already in the bag.
“KOREAN WAR TO END! The United States, and all of its GREAT people, should be very proud of what is now taking place in Korea!” Trump tweeted on Friday.
Despite the uncertain path ahead, Trump took the opportunity Friday to lash out at his predecessors for not solving the North Korea nuclear riddle.
“The United States has been played beautifully, like a fiddle, because you had a different kind of a leader. We’re not going to be played, OK?” he said. “We’re going to hopefully make a deal. If we don’t, that’s fine. The United States in the past was played like a fiddle.”
Trump has not just claimed credit for accelerating diplomacy – he has even said Moon had told him that without his strong stance, this year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea would have been a “total failure.”
“It’s a little hard to sell tickets when you think you’re going to be nuked,” Trump said in March.
Just before Kim and Moon met, the White House on Thursday released pictures of new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s secret meeting with Kim in Pyongyang while he was CIA director.
The intent apparently was to stress the key US role in facilitating Friday’s summit.
Trump is not alone in hailing his approach, which saw him fling alarming rhetoric at “Little Rocket Man” Kim and boast about the size of his nuclear button, as well as the coining of an intensified strategy of maximum pressure sanctions.
“Clearly, credit goes to President Trump,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in Seoul. “He’s been determined to come to grips with this from Day 1.”
Pompeo said in Brussels that “we would not be where we are today without President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign.”
Trump’s wrestle with North Korea’s nuclear program dates back to his first meeting with President Barack Obama while he was president-elect. His predecessor told him that Pyongyang’s march to tip a ballistic missile that could reach the US with a nuclear warhead would be the burning issue of his presidency.
Trump’s policy strategy since has been surprisingly linear and coherent for an administration that has unfolded in a whirl of chaos.
The administration succeeded in enacting the most stringent sanctions regime yet imposed on North Korea – and crucially got more buy in from China for more pressure on its nominal ally North Korea than ever before.
If those sanctions are indeed behind North Korea’s decision to come to the table, Trump’s effusive praise of China’s President Xi Jinping during a state visit last year, for which he was widely criticized, could be validated.
“Please do not forget the great help that my good friend, President Xi of China, has given to the United States, particularly at the Border of North Korea. Without him it would have been a much longer, tougher, process!” Trump tweeted on Friday.
Trump’s supporters believe that his fierce rhetoric last year, when he vowed to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea may also be responsible for unblocking the diplomatic deadlock that has stretched over several administrations.
It’s possible that the glimpse into the President’s mind did convince China that he may actually be willing to do something unthinkable if it did not get more serious about imposing economic sanctions.
His tirades may also have gotten Kim’s attention – though the North’s status as an effective nuclear power following a flurry of nuclear and missile tests may have more to do with the North Korean leader’s U-turn – from a position of strength.
Note of triumph
Even before he meets Kim, a note of triumph and finality has crept into Trump’s rhetoric – which may be overly optimistic given the many false thaws between the North and the South – and the treacherous diplomacy ahead.
Other than holding the Kim-Trump summit, the US diplomatic strategy with North Korea seems opaque.
But the peace deal to replace the Korean War amnesty that the President trumpeted would likely come with a set of conditions from the US side – including perhaps the export of the North’s nuclear arsenal for destruction overseas – that Kim might find it impossible to accept.
Even the word “denuclearization” which Trump has been throwing around in tweets is subject to sharply different interpretations between North Korea and the United States.
Trump’s rush to claim credit for the opening also underplays the contribution of other key players.
The South Korean president, for instance, has staked his political career on the events that led up to his historic handshake with Kim on Friday.
And for much of the last year, Kim, with his weapons tests and shock diplomacy, has been dictating events, and leaving Trump to catch up – as the President did with his surprise agreement to sit down with the North Korean leader himself.
There is only one way to find out whether Kim is truly committed to a new beginning or if he is cycling through the familiar North Korean routine of trading dialogue for concessions and foreign aid while making no realistic steps to freeze or remove nuclear programs.
So Kim’s intentions must be tested – that is one reason why Trump’s summit gambit with Kim is defensible.
Given the stakes, and the chance of averting what could be a murderous war on the Korean peninsula, it’s possible that even in Washington’s divisive political climate, everyone might be rooting for Trump to succeed.
This story has been updated.