Direct diplomacy between North and South Korea has picked up in recent weeks, culminating on Friday in a summit meeting between North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in. The Panmunjom Declaration, a joint statement detailing goals and objectives for ongoing negotiations, included language about “denuclearization” as well as a commitment to work toward formally ending the Korean War. Images of both leaders holding hands and stepping over the border were moving.
To top it all off, on Sunday, the South Korean government said that Kim Jong-un told President Moon Jae-in “that he would abandon his nuclear weapons if the United States agreed to formally end the Korean War and promise not to invade his country.” This is now the context heading into the planned meeting between Trump and Kim in May or June.
What is driving this apparently historic diplomatic engagement? Why does Kim Jong-un suddenly seem so willing to compromise after years of obstinacy? If you listen to the White House and its supporters, all the credit is owed to Trump. At a rally in Michigan on Saturday, President Trump noted that some people were questioning what his policy of “maximum pressure” had to do with this outbreak of diplomacy. “I’ll tell you what,” Trump boasted to the crowd, “like, how about everything?”
Vice President Mike Pence concurs, saying in a statement, “The fact that North Korea has come to the table without the United States making any concessions speaks to the strength of President Trump’s leadership and is a clear sign that the intense pressure of sanctions is working.” National Security Adviser John Bolton, too, believes that “the maximum pressure campaign that the Trump administration has put on North Korea, along with the political and military pressure, has brought us to this point.”
Even the president’s antagonists on the Democratic side are giving him credit. “I think it’s more than fair,” Rep. Adam Schiff told ABC News, “to say that the combination of the president’s unpredictability and indeed, his bellicosity had something to do with the North Koreans deciding to come to the table.”
So, the claim here is that Trump’s toughness, his insistence on ever-harsher economic sanctions, his uncompromising posture, his threats, and his bombast, terrified Pyongyang into capitulating. This is a remarkably self-serving narrative that ignores important context. It looks more like a perceptual bias than a persuasive explanation. As Robert Jervis wrote in his famous work on Perception and Misperception in International Relations, “people perceive what they expect to be present” while ignoring discrepant information.
To begin with, while the diplomacy between Kim and Moon has seen many impressive (though mostly symbolic) precedents, this is not the first inter-Korean summit pledging peace and disarmament. In the summits of 2000 and 2007, much of the same rhetoric appeared in joint statements, accompanied with hopeful images of Kim Jong-il and Moon’s predecessors holding hands and smiling. And while the planned Trump-Kim meeting is the first of its kind (no sitting president has met with North Korea’s Supreme Leader), it is not the first time that Pyongyang has asked for such a face-to-face meeting. Clinton, Bush, and Obama also received such offers.
Moreover, Trump’s posture isn’t the only pebble on the beach. There are other factors influencing Kim Jong-un’s decision-making. First, Pyongyang has recently achieved its objectives on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, profoundly strengthening Kim’s bargaining position. A viable nuclear deterrent has likely boosted Kim’s confidence and made him more comfortable with offering compromise deals.
Second, it is not apparent that Trump’s bombast has been the driving force in this unfolding drama. President Moon Jae-in has orchestrated most of it. He campaigned on restarting the “sunshine policy” and has already met with Kim several times, mostly on his own bold (and conciliatory) initiative. This suggests the diplomatic progress is a victory for doves, not hawks. At best, this is a good-cop, bad-cop dynamic, but even that is likely giving Trump more credit than he deserves.
The importance of Moon’s diplomatic approach should not be overlooked. In fact, Seoul’s posture has always been a major determinant of progress on the peninsula. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “Failure to deliver on past promises was less a sign of North Korean duplicity and more a reflection of how progress stalled when a more hawkish Seoul administration took power not long after the 2007 summit, leading to a decade of increasing tensions.”
Indeed, hawkish postures from both Seoul and Washington are not correlated with this kind of diplomatic progress. Much the opposite. According to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, over the past 25 years, periods of diplomacy correlate with a reduction in North Korean provocations.
The causal logic that both Democrats and Republicans are buying into here—that Trump’s bluster and threats of nuclear war scared Kim into some kind of slow-motion surrender—doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. However, Trump does deserve credit for his willingness to meet with Kim Jong-un. Too often in the past, Washington has accompanied economic sanctions with both political isolation and military pressure. That is a recipe for failure. Trump decided instead that political isolation wasn’t going anywhere and, as is his wont, he ignored the prevailing wisdom in DC that says America shouldn’t meet with enemies without preconditions.
If Trump understood that his willingness to talk, more than his bullying, had contributed to success so far, then his meeting with Kim in several weeks would have much better chances for success.