Donald Trump’s walk into North Korea can best be explained through the lens of the 2020 election.
If history is to remember one of the most audacious photo ops in American diplomacy as anything more than a stunt, the President must now produce breakthroughs from his friendship with the brutal dictator Kim Jong Un.
Yet even if that progress is slow to emerge, Trump can still chalk up a valuable political win that will underscore how his foreign policy is often directed by his electoral priorities.
He can use his singular televised moment to bolster his claims to be a statesman and a peacemaker. And it’s not just about winning the Nobel Prize that the President believes he deserves for forging an opening with one of the most despotic regimes in modern history.
Trump also has a vital political interest in keeping alive the idea that he personally headed off war with North Korea and that historic progress is possible as he runs for reelection.
His meeting with Kim is a centerpiece of the “peace and prosperity” platform on which he plans to anchor his bid for a second term and to use to rise above his Democratic rivals.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted that Trump shouldn’t be “squandering American influence on photo ops and exchanging love letters with a ruthless dictator.”
A spokesman for Democratic front-runner Joe Biden accused Trump of “coddling” dictators at the “expense of American national security.”
Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted that Trump should take North Korea’s nuclear threat and its “crimes against humanity seriously.”
But politics is often shaped more by perception than reality. And the North Korean summit is an example of how Trump can use the office of the presidency to his own benefit ahead of 2020.
He has every incentive to keep on engaging Kim perhaps even with an election year visit to the White House, even if the North Koreans refuse to give up their nuclear program.
And Trump, by becoming the first sitting President to step into North Korea, also outdid his predecessors, some of whom simply climbed atop the border wall and peered over the other side into the isolated state.
The stunning imagery that unfolded at the demilitarized zone between the rival Koreas – the world’s last Cold War border – will shortly be making its way into Trump campaign ads.
On that score alone, it’s mission accomplished.
No fundamental progress
But even the President acknowledges that without a significant follow up, his encounter with Kim will not realize its promise.
“This was a very legendary, very historic day,” Trump told reporters after meeting Kim. But he added: “It’ll be even more historic if something comes out of it.”
For all his effusive praise of his own initiative and his odd friendship with Kim, Trump cannot point to fundamental changes in North Korean behavior that are at the root of the standoff.
Since meeting Trump at their first summit in Singapore last year, Kim has done nothing to live up to Pyongyang’s undertaking to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” That refusal to budge was behind the failure of the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi in February.
Though it has suspended nuclear and long-range missile tests, US intelligence and analysts believe that the North is still manufacturing the materials needed to add to its already considerable nuclear arsenal.
“It is positive, certainly that after four months of little to no contact between North Korea and the Americans that they are in touch again,” said Jean Lee, director of the Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center.
“However, will it get North Korea to the place where they are willing to give up elements of their nuclear program, partially or completely to ensure peace in the region?”
“I don’t know — this is a risky move,” Lee said on CNN.
Legitimizing a tyrant
Critics of Trump’s approach argue that he has already ceded huge propaganda concessions to Kim by agreeing to repeated meetings without securing even an inventory of North Korean weapons that will be the first step to a genuine diplomatic process.
They believe that Kim is merely exploiting the President’s vanity and desperation for personal political successes to win international acceptance.
Trump has certainly legitimized a man who presides over a horrific regime that maintains concentration camps, crushes individual freedoms, exists in a cult of personality and sometimes executes his opponents.
But no other President in recent years has managed to make irreversible progress toward eliminating North Korea’s nuclear program.
The New York Times reported on Sunday night that the administration may try to unpick the deadlock with an approach that would amount to freezing North Korea’s nuclear program in place. The move would cause huge controversy because it would essentially accept the North as a nuclear power – a climbdown from the administration’s previous position. And Pyongyang’s program is much more advanced than Iran’s was.
It would also expose the Trump White House to accusations of hypocrisy, since the President pulled out of a similar deal with Iran negotiated by the Obama administration. In a cycle of escalation that followed the President’s withdrawal, Iran’s state-run IRNA news outlet said Monday that Tehran’s stockpiles of low enriched uranium now exceeded the 300 kilogram limit set by the deal.
There is an argument that Trump’s radically different approach is worth a try even if there is no indication yet that Kim is sincere about handing over weapons which are the ultimate guarantee of his regime’s capacity to stay in power.
Foreign policy traditionalists argue that meetings with Kim should be the last step on the diplomatic process — to formally endorse an agreement, not the first step.
As it stands, Kim and Trump agreed to task lower level officials to reopen talks that have yet to progress despite the previous summits.
North Koreans are notoriously formidable negotiating partners who typically push for US concessions to get an agreement while balking at or cheating on their own commitments.
The President argues that his decision to meet a leader from a state that has been technically in a state of war with the US for nearly 70 years is in itself a breakthrough.
“This is, I think, really … this is a historic moment, the fact that we’re meeting,” Trump told Kim on Sunday.
There was a danger that after the failed Hanoi summit, Washington and Pyongyang could return to open confrontation and that the risk of war would again increase.
So there are benefits to a personal connection between Trump and Kim, however distasteful it may appear.
How the 2020 election could offer an opening in talks
But symbolism does not mask the lack of real progress.
In fact, the American side still does not have a good fix on whether Kim really is serious in giving up his nuclear weapons — or is simply trawling for concessions from the US.
Trump has layered praise on North Korea for the rudimentary steps it has taken so far. They include returning remains of US servicemen killed in the 1950-53 Korean War and the suspension of ballistic missile tests designed to weaponize a nuclear device that could reliably reach the US mainland.
The North Koreans had similar steps in earlier diplomatic dances with US Presidents and not ultimately gone on to verifiably halt their nuclear programs.
But this time, the political calendar and Trump’s approach could give grounds for optimism.
Kim, who has presided over a limited form of economic development inside North Korea, is under pressure to deliver improvements in the lives of his people — even if he has no intention of loosening his iron grip on political dissent.
So he has an incentive to try to seek economic benefits or aid from the United States and wants punishing economic sanctions lifted — a potential opening for US negotiators.
The North Koreans have also proven themselves to be shrewd students of US politics.
Kim must realize that his chances of basking in this kind of legitimacy with a US President other than Trump are slim.
So if he fears Trump could lose in 2020, he may reason the time may be ripe for a deal. And Trump wants nothing more than a big diplomatic breakthrough months before the election.