Opinion: Why We Should Welcome Trump’s North Korea Diplomacy Gamble

President Donald Trump walks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during his five-country trip through Asia in November 2017. (Public domain photo by Official White House Photographer Andrea Hanks.)

Much noise has been made about the dangers of President Trump’s agreement to meet North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un. While there are plenty of valid concerns that need to be quickly addressed prior to a May summit, I want to offer a different perspective on the matter.

To achieve any tangible concessions from North Korea, there are two primary options: utilize military force to impose our will or squeeze their economy with sanctions until they beg for mercy. Both of these routes have tremendous human consequences that often get overlooked in the geopolitical reality show that is our current foreign policy with Pyongyang.

Very little attention is ever dedicated to the fact that North Korea is more than just its ruthless dictator; in fact, it happens to be the home of more than 25 million people. These are real people with real human lives. North Koreans lack the basic human rights and dignities that most Americans take for granted, like freedom of expression and religion, and they are subject to the cruel realities of a lawless police state.

Furthermore, severe food shortages are predicted to leave about two-fifths of their population undernourished, and the UN claims that approximately 70 percent of North Koreans rely on government food services. The humanitarian crisis in North Korea is by far the most neglected of all such crises in the world.

While economic sanctions are always a popular mechanism for punishing foreign adversaries, especially over military action, such policies most significantly impact the largely innocent people of these countries. The Trump administration credits his harsh sanctions for choking the North Korean government into potentially conceding their nuclear program in some fashion, so sanctions can definitely be argued to achieve an ultimately “greater good”. However, it is crucial to continually evaluate such policies and their real effects on a country’s people.

Besides sanctions and military action, what else can we do to achieve a long-term peace on the Korean peninsula? President Trump has an answer, and that is diplomacy.

Again, it is extremely important to highlight the risks of rushing into a meeting with the North Korean leader that have already been publicized and regurgitated countless times: Trump is impulsive, two months is not nearly enough time to lay out a concrete strategy for this summit, we are giving Kim Jong-un exactly what he wants (legitimacy on a global scale), we do not currently have a solid idea as to what real concessions North Korea will offer let alone follow-through on, and the list goes on.

I would like to take some time to critically assess some of these risks from a humanitarian-first perspective.

First, let’s examine the claim that Trump is playing right into Kim’s hands by giving him this unprecedented meeting that legitimizes his power alongside the leader of the free world. This seems to be one of the chief concerns experts and columnists are expressing over this summit, but does Kim Jong-un not already enjoy the nearly universal worship of his people through his country’s strict control over the flow of information and thought? Are leaders anywhere else in the world going to think any more highly of Kim as a result of this meeting? I think not.

What about if the meeting fails and Trump makes us all look bad? Well, that would just be the next example in an ongoing series of such embarrassments that have characterized much of Trump’s political career. The point of the matter is this: if obscure ideas and political optics are more important to some than the potential successes of such a meeting, then it is my belief that they are flat-out wrong.

Fears of the potential failures and setbacks stemming from this diplomatic meeting are understandable, but let us not forget the status quo merely weeks ago. Trump’s bombastic and aggressive tweets worsened the tone of an already sour relationship and only drew us closer to potential military conflict. The fact that he is willing to temper this rhetoric and actually practice diplomacy is a great sign (especially if you live in South Korea).

President Trump is very receptive to criticism, as we have seen throughout his presidency. If people are going to scrutinize him for being too hostile towards North Korea only to criticize him just as much if not more for this move towards diplomacy, do people really care about the actual outcomes of this intricate geopolitical conflict or do they simply want to criticize Trump for everything he does? Regardless of his possible ulterior motives stemming from his penchant for creating reality show-esque drama at the expense of the country, diplomatic relations are much more preferable to a state of paranoiac terror.

If we have experienced such a sharp 180-degree turn in our relations with Pyongyang in such a brief amount of time, why should we think a failure in a face-to-face setting would terminate any prospects for a future summit? We have already tried sending in seasoned diplomats and other bureaucratic officials to negotiate with North Korean leadership only to experience the same failure that many are fearing will occur this time. Trump is definitely not the ideal candidate to test this new strategy, but perhaps a future president could follow in his footsteps and pursue similar diplomatic goals.

On a similar note, North Korea has consistently failed to follow-through on its commitments to denuclearize in the past, so why should we think that this time will be any different? Overlooking the circular reasoning of this question that guarantees stagnancy and failure, there is one key reason to feel encouraged: it has been widely reported that Kim Jong-un is running low on his father’s slush fund as a result of his extremely ambitious pursuit of nuclear weapons.

As stated before, the North Koreans are facing monumental economic sanctions that are exacerbating the famine and other humanitarian crises in the country. Without fiscal flexibility, Kim realizes that this path is unsustainable, especially if he wants to remain in power for generations to come. This is why he has been steadily attempting to improve relations with South Korea at the recent Winter Olympics and is now particularly desperate to normalize relations with the United States.

So long as the US sets clear benchmarks regarding North Korean denuclearization, this time ensuring proper international oversight, an agreement could lead to resounding improvements in the humanitarian crisis of North Korea. Any failure to reach an agreement at this summit will only further worsen conditions for the people of North Korea, incite even more of its citizens to flee to China and other countries, and eventually strip away any legitimacy Kim Jong-un has. The US would leave the meeting still with massive diplomatic and military advantages that would protect us from any nuclear threats.

Again, Kim Jong-un needs an actual country to run in order to maintain his status as a supreme leader. Any military action on his end would be quickly met with the full-force of our bloated defense systems, and this is why none of Kim’s predecessors have ever tried to test us on that.

While North Korea has undoubtedly developed a real nuclear arsenal that has given them definitive leverage in possible negotiations with their adversaries, it should be underscored just how crazy it would be, even for Kim, to actually push the red button.

Shifts toward diplomacy should always be welcomed and embraced by anyone who seriously wishes to see peace arise out of a conflict. President Trump could very well fail to achieve anything of substance at this proposed summit, but he is laying the groundwork for our best shot at a potential breakthrough; one that could ultimately reverse the course of humanitarian crisis in North Korea.

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