Donald Trump’s approach to North Korea is a diplomatic win


During his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump named Vietnam as the site of the second summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Great speech, but Trump can’t help being Trump

By Robert Robb

President Donald Trump delivered a solid State of the Union address the other night.

The riff on border security, the issue du jour, was particularly effective. That was my impression, even though I think Trump overstates the importance of physical barriers to deterring illegal immigration and drug trafficking. (As I believe that Democrats excessively dismiss their value.)

Unfortunately, he indelibly marred the speech by a quintessential Trumpism: The assertion that if he weren’t president, the country would be at war with North Korea.

That’s the sort of vainglorious indulgence that politicians just don’t make, even if true.

And in this instance, there isn’t much of a case that it is true.

The odds that any of Trump’s 2016 rivals, Democrat or Republican, would have gone to war with North Korea are vanishingly small.

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Given how close the North and South Korean populations are located, and the hair-trigger status of armaments, the casualties in any comprehensive conflict would be enormous. Undoubtedly, other presidents would still be trying to contain and redirect North Korea through sanctions and multiparty negotiations. And attempting, undoubtedly unsuccessfully, to play the China card against North Korea.

Moreover, North Korea has always calibrated its extortionist provocations to fall short of triggering an armed response.

What’s weird about the act of vainglory is that Trump has legitimate, nonhyperbolized bragging rights on North Korea. What Trump has accomplished is underappreciated.

The suspension of missile testing by North Korea is huge. Right now, Kim Jong Un doesn’t know whether his missiles could deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States. Without additional testing, he can’t know. That uncertainty is a big security gain for America.

The security gain is probably attributable to the personal diplomacy Trump has engaged in with Kim. Other, more conventional presidents probably wouldn’t have met with Kim essentially without preconditions. And missile testing might be continuing.

Trump referred to the lack of missile tests. But the import of this was lost in his assertion that he, and he alone, stood between war and peace.

That Trump could not control himself, even in an otherwise button-down staged speech, illustrates his political problem.

President Ronald Reagan was always more popular than his policies. Trump is less popular than his policies.

Better to be on Reagan’s side of that equation.

Robert Robb is a columnist at The Arizona Republic, where this column first appeared. You can follow him on Twitter: @RJRobb

What others are saying

Eli Lake,  Bloomberg: “America pays a price in moral credibility for President Donald Trump’s fluctuations on North Korea. The inconsistency tells other victims of state repression that U.S. concern for their freedom and dignity is transactional. What are Iranians to think, for example, when they see the U.S. president exchange love letters with the warden of North Korea’s prison state? Should they trust that the U.S. government cares about their human rights? Worse still, as Iran’s rulers become more desperate, they may think they can earn a reprieve from U.S. pressure if they just flatter Trump and agree to bargain.”

Tod Lindberg,  The Wall Street Journal: “President Trump’s diplomacy is in some ways more 19th century than 21st. He has shed President Barack Obama’s view that history has a ‘right side,’ which America’s rivals will eventually seek to join. Obama’s Iran deal was premised on Tehran’s voluntarily abandoning its radicalism and deciding to join the peaceful, modern world. The Trump administration makes no such assumption about North Korea’s eventual benevolence.”

James Jay Carafano, “In the end, there is only one way to tell if the negotiations with Kim are going anywhere, and that’s if his regime agrees to a complete and verifiable accounting of all its nuclear assets. If the North Koreans don’t do that, there is little point to negotiating. It would have been helpful if President Trump had made that point with crystal clarity in the State of the Union. Then at least all parties could have headed to the summit with no doubt as to what real progress in the talks would look like.”

What our readers are saying

How will President Donald Trump top the photo-op in Singapore, where he saluted Kim Jong Un’s generals and ended that pesky Korean War and brought peace to the region?

— Tim Donovan

I believe Kim is a murderous monster. Being on friendly terms with a murderous monster is not a virtue to be proud of.

— Johnathan Swift

Trump said that if he had not been elected president, that we would be at war with North Korea. This was the most offensive part of his speech. But Trump might have emboldened Kim to continue to expand his nuclear arsenal.

— Scott Hardy

Democrats’ greatest fear is that Trump will make some deal with Kim. The left would rather have our country at the brink of war with North Korea, rather than see Trump make some major accomplishment.

— Robert Johnson

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