Shortly before becoming president, Donald Trump received a stark message from the man he would soon replace, Barack Obama: North Korea would be the biggest foreign policy challenge facing the new administration. Its growing nuclear and missile arsenals vexed the Democrat’s administration, and they were only likely to improve while the Republican was in office.
But two and a half years into Trump’s tenure, it appears that Pyongyang is no longer as big a problem as it was just a few years ago — because Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s relationship seems surprisingly strong.
Two summits and an impromptu one-hour meeting on Sunday — in which Trump became the first sitting president to set foot in North Korea after he requested a chat over Twitter — show their relationship may be enough to keep their countries from conflict. While Kim still has nuclear bombs and missiles, and has surely added to both arsenals since Trump took over, it’s much less likely now that he would use them against the United States or its Asian allies, some experts say.
Which means that while Trump may not meet his stated goal of getting Pyongyang to denuclearize, his bonhomie with the brutal dictator has calmed tensions to the point that North Korea should no longer be a major concern for the US — at least for now. What’s more, the administration reportedly is considering a plan where it accepts a temporary freeze of North Korea’s programs before pushing for their dismantling. National Security Adviser John Bolton, however, denies that this is true.
It’s unclear if Trump purposely calculated that befriending Kim, including sending him love letters, would make the danger subside. After all, Trump in 2017 vowed to unleash “fire and fury” on and “totally destroy” North Korea. But even if he didn’t, improving US-North Korea ties, however superficial, has proven a fairly elegant solution to a problem that plagued three presidents before him.
“Keeping tensions with North Korea low and predictable allows us to be more strategic in the region,” Mintaro Oba, a former Obama State Department official who worked on North Korean affairs, told me.
In effect, there may be a case to make that Trump and Kim should have more meetings, even if they don’t produce tangible results on the nuclear front.
Experts say Kim believes that having a credible nuclear program will help his regime survive, mainly by deterring an invasion from the United States. He therefore has no incentive to give up his arsenal and open himself up to attack, especially now that his country developed a huge nuclear weapon and a missile perhaps able to hit any part of the US with it. It’s why many say it’s way too late to compel North Korea to give up weapons it’s spent decades working to acquire.
Still, Kim and Trump agreed in Singapore last year to first work on improving relations as a means before seriously discussing denuclearization. That partly explains why Trump has put so much effort into wooing the dictator (although a major reason, surely, is because the president loves a spectacle).
The Singapore and Hanoi summits, as well as the brief gathering at the inter-Korean border this week, were chances for Trump and Kim to make progress on how to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program. None of those meetings advanced on that front, meaning Kim’s arsenal remains wholly intact and as dangerous as ever. But those gatherings kept both leaders engaged in diplomacy instead of pushing for war — and that may be a victory in and of itself.
As long as Trump and Kim continue to interact, or at least want to interact, the North Korea problem doesn’t seem to loom as large.
“They have enough fissile material for as many as 65 warheads. It sucks, but that’s life,” says Harry Kazianis, a North Korea expert at the Center for the National Interest think tank in Washington. “We can deter them all day.”
And playing nice with North Korea, which keeps it from wanting to bomb the US (for now), allows the Trump administration and possibly future presidents to focus on other pressing matters.
“I think we often let North Korea consume our Asia policy and forget the most critical strategic priority: countering China,” Oba told me. A more docile Pyongyang lets the White House “direct resources and attention to other things that matter for US power and security.”
But Trump’s “make friends” approach has plenty of critics, many of whom are worried that his emphasis on the relationship comes at the expense of the reason he started chatting with Kim in the first place: dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
“Relationships can always go sour”
Joseph Yun, who served as the US special envoy for North Korea under Obama and Trump, told me that improving Washington-Pyongyang ties certainly has value, especially since those capitals spent decades in opposition. Yet the problem, as he sees it, is that “leaving the next president with just the process is not enough.”
“If the Trump administration ended right now, we wouldn’t be better off because whoever comes in next could do something different,” he continued. “That’s why we have to leave with real normalization and some progress on denuclearization.”
In other words, the US and North Korea are friendly now, but that’s not guaranteed when another commander in chief takes over. Plus, Pyongyang may turn on Trump by the end of the year, the deadline Kim gave the US to lift sanctions put on his country to get him to negotiate his nukes away.
Further, the US refusing to push hard on denuclearization but also engaging with Pyongyang in effect accepts that North Korea as a nuclear power, many experts say. As long as the regime has those weapons, then, the problem persists.
“Relationships can always go sour, and allies in Seoul and Tokyo, and even Washington, can’t bet on Pyongyang from never attacking them,” says Duyeon Kim, a North Korea expert at the Center for a New American Security think tank. “Allowing Pyongyang to keep its nuclear weapons, under any circumstances, would then open up a Pandora’s box to even bigger headaches for Washington to deal with globally.”
“Just because the leaders’ relationship appears rosy doesn’t mean their countries’ relationship is sound,” she added, noting how Kim’s regime continues to criticize the US for not moving fast enough on lifting sanctions.
The consequences of this diplomacy, then, may help US-North Korea relations in the immediate but hurt America down the line.
“The way Trump is doing this is going to completely shred US credibility in Asia, causing allies like South Korea and Japan to hedge against us, Kim to feel emboldened, and China to expand its influence,” says Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s top foreign policy advisers. “There may be a very short-term containment from it, but it’s not like the character of the North Korean regime is changing, nor is their nuclear or missile program.”
So as long as North Korea keeps the weapons it has, the argument goes, there will always be concern that it could do something truly horrific, worrying allies along the way. That’s a fair point, and it’s true that the US-North Korea relationship is almost entirely contingent on Trump and Kim’s bromance. But if that bromance has reduced the specter of war and potentially put Washington and Pyongyang on a longer-term path to peace, then it’s much better than the alternative.
Even Yun agrees with that. “It’s worth leaving at least something behind,” he told me. “This interim step is fine — for now.”