The video of President Trump shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and becoming the first sitting U.S. president to cross the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into North Korea should have been a welcome sight in both East Asia and the United States. It was a powerful symbol of warming relations between Washington and Pyongyang—a process that had stumbled in February when a summit meeting abruptly ended in an impasse.
Trump’s domestic critics, though, seem unwilling to accord him any credit for his diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea and the easing of dangerous tensions that have plagued the Korean Peninsula for seven decades. Of the many criticisms directed at Trump, the most annoying and unrealistic one is that even choosing to interact with Kim reflects questionable judgment. Some opponents denounce the president for meeting with such an odious tyrant under any circumstances; others insist that Trump at least should have refused to do so until Pyongyang made major, irreversible steps to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Both criticisms show a disturbing lack of realism about how diplomacy must be conducted and what objectives can be achieved.
A popular cliché in American foreign policy and journalistic circles is that merely meeting with Kim accords the tyrant undeserved ”legitimacy.” Indeed, that accusation was prevalent regarding the earlier summits in Singapore and Hanoi. Senator Chuck Schumer, for example, issued a statement following the Singapore summit that Trump had given “a brutal and repressive dictatorship the international legitimacy it has long craved.” Such complaints have gained new volume after the meeting at the DMZ.
Those objections are shockingly naïve. Effective diplomacy requires a willingness to engage unpleasant regimes and leaders. Indeed, U.S. presidents have routinely done so throughout the history of the republic. Several summits took place with Soviet dictators during the Cold War, and the normalization of U.S. relations with Communist China occurred because Richard Nixon was willing not only to open a dialogue with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, but travel to China to start the process. Any progress with North Korea would be unlikely if President Trump followed the advice of his critics and refused even to meet with Kim Jong-un.
The slightly more sophisticated criticism that no summit should have been held until Pyongyang made preemptive concessions on the nuclear issue is nearly as unrealistic. As I discuss in a recent National Interest Online article, it is doubtful that North Korea will ever relinquish its small nuclear arsenal. But if Pyongyang does take that step, it will occur only after prolonged, difficult negotiations with a substantial amount of give and take on both sides.
What Trump’s critics seek is capitulation, not negotiation. But such a one-sided outcome almost never occurs except when a country is decisively defeated in war. One hopes that those politicians and pundits who demand Pyongyang’s capitulation are not implicitly advocating a war against North Korea. Absent that scenario, though, their insistence on massive, preemptive concessions makes no sense.
President Trump does have a tendency to oversell his successes, and he has done so regarding his personal diplomacy with Kim. Significant tensions remain on the Korean Peninsula, and because of Washington’s foolish insistence on keeping U.S. forces in South Korea as a tripwire, this country continues to run needless risks. But it is a good development when tensions decline even modestly, and U.S. and North Korean leaders are smiling rather than snarling at each other. A succession of U.S. administrations refused to engage North Korea even as the already toxic bilateral relationship worsened. President Trump appears to have abandoned that futile course, and for his decision he deserves credit and support, not petty criticism.