Analysis: Trump Could Transform the U.S.–North Korea Relationship

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev shake hands as they leave the Hofdi, in Reykjavik, after their third session of talks on October 12, 1986. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev shake hands as they leave the Hofdi, in Reykjavik, after their third session of talks on October 12, 1986. Bob Daugherty/AP

Donald Trump is an ignorant, egotistical man. And in his summit on Tuesday with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, those character defects may be America—and the world’s—best hope.

The conventional Washington debate about North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program goes something like this. On one side sit centrist foreign-policy experts who acknowledge that it’s unlikely Pyongyang will give up its nukes but urge a policy of sustained economic and diplomatic isolation in hopes of gradually wearing the North down. The Obama administration called this policy “strategic patience.” On the other sit hawks like National Security Adviser John Bolton who say America can’t afford to wait. They consider North Korea’s progress toward building a nuclear weapon able to reach the United States so dangerous that they are willing to apply “maximum pressure”—including threats of war—in hopes of forcing the regime to surrender its nukes.

Last year, Trump appeared to be pursuing path number two. But in recent months, he’s veered onto a course that looks nonsensical from both perspectives. He’s not showing any patience at all: He’s granting Kim a summit that North Korean leaders have long craved without getting much in return ahead of time. And, in so doing, he’s easing Kim’s diplomatic and economic isolation, thus undermining the “maximum pressure” campaign he once boasted about. Which explains why members of both camps worry that he’s being duped. They fear that Trump—because he’s unfamiliar with the history of U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks and eager for public adulation—has deluded himself into believing he can sweet-talk Kim into giving up his nuclear weapons. And that as a result, this week’s summit will prove a disaster.

But it’s possible that Trump’s unfamiliarity with the details of denuclearization, and his desire to be celebrated as a peacemaker, may be his greatest asset. Because what matters most about the summit isn’t whether it begins the process of eliminating every last ounce of Pyongyang’s plutonium and enriched uranium. What matters most is whether it begins the process of fundamentally changing the relationship between North Korea and the United States. 

In pursuing peace with North Korea, Trump has the chance to be like Ronald Reagan: not the unyielding, warlike Reagan of Republican myth, but the real Reagan. The man who, in his second term, confounded both establishment centrists and his right-wing base by focusing not on the details of arms control but on fundamentally changing America’s relationship with the USSR.

In the 1980s, the Washington foreign policy debate featured two main camps. On one side was the centrist establishment, led by veterans of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, which supported modest, incremental arms control with the Soviet Union. The other was a conservative counter-establishment, which included some of Reagan’s top advisers, who scorned negotiations and urged increased military and political pressure on the USSR in an effort to reverse what they saw as Soviet ascendance. For all their disagreements, neither side foresaw the end of the Cold War or the abolition of nuclear weapons. Their debate was over how to wage a struggle that seemed destined to last for decades.

In his first three years, Reagan seemed to follow the hawkish path. He refused to submit the SALT II arms-control treaty, negotiated by Carter, for Senate ratification. He boosted military spending and armed anti-communist regimes and rebel groups in the developing world. But beneath Reagan’s hawkish policies lay an idiosyncratic faith in the possibility of ending the Cold War and eliminating nuclear weapons that put him at odds with experts on both sides of Washington’s foreign-policy divide.

Although the press often ignored it because it conflicted with his reputation as a cold warrior, Reagan had since the 1940s supported abolishing nuclear weapons. And in contrast to many of his hawkish advisors, Reagan believed he could forge a productive, even transformative, relationship with Soviet leaders if only he could get to know them as people. In his bookPresident Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, Lou Cannon notes that a few months into his presidency, Reagan personally drafted a letter to then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that, according to Secretary of State Alexander Haig, “talked about a world without nuclear weapons” and “reflected a demeanor that, if only those two men could sit down as rational human beings, the problems of the world would be behind us.” Haig convinced Reagan not to send the letter, which he considered “naive.”

But Reagan kept reaching out to Soviet leaders. In early 1983, he overruledDefense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and CIA Chief William Casey to meet with the Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin. That September, he overrode Weinberger and Haig’s successor, George Schultz, who wanted to cancel his meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko after the Soviets shot down a South Korean airliner.

These meetings didn’t bear fruit, in part because Soviet leaders—Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko—in Reagan’s words, “kept dying on me.” But in March 1985, within hours of learning that Mikhail Gorbachev would replace Chernenko, Reagan invited him to meet without preconditions. Reagan also instructed Vice President George H.W. Bush—who was in Moscow for Chernenko’s funeral—to tell Gorbachev that America and the Soviet Union “should seek to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.” That November, despite calls from conservatives to cancel the summit after Soviet troops killed a U.S. soldier in East Germany, Reagan and Gorbachev met. Their initial discussion, which was supposed to last 15 minutes, lasted five hours. At one point, Reagan whispered to Gorbachev, “I bet the hardliners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands.”

They met again in 1986 in Reykjavik, Iceland, and hawks breathed a sigh of relief when Reagan—after telling Gorbachev that “it would be fine with me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons”—derailed that possibility by refusing a Soviet demand not to deploy the Strategic Defense Initiative missile-defense system. But in 1987, as the two leaders moved towards signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the most sweeping arms-control agreement of the Cold War, hawks—and even some centrists—began warning that Reagan was being duped. “I do not believe that Ronald Reagan or [Secretary of State] George Schultz intended to render Europe more vulnerable, nor the Soviet Union less vulnerable, nor the Atlantic Alliance weaker. But that is what the proposed agreement does,” declared Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s former UN ambassador. The Wall Street Journal editorial page opined that “historians may someday explain what turned Mr. Reagan into a utopian disarmer.”

As Reagan muted his hardline anti-communist rhetoric, hawks grew even more alarmed. Asked during a May 1987 trip to Moscow whether “you still think you’re in an evil empire,” Reagan replied, “No, I was talking about another time and another era.” George Will responded that “Reagan’s rhetoric has accelerated the nation’s intellectual disarmament.” In his excellent book, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan, James Mann notes that even former President Nixon—a foreign-policy centrist who had pursued détente with the Soviet Union himself—insisted that Reagan was being snookered. “Under Gorbachev,” Nixon wrote in March 1988, “the Soviet Union’s foreign policy has … been more aggressive, not less.”

It’s easy to understand why so many Washington experts—trained to be suspicious of Soviet leaders—worried that Reagan, who didn’t know the difference between a cruise missile and a ballistic missile, was an unreliable negotiator. But what Reagan, with Schultz’s help, realized was that the details of the INF deal mattered less than changing America’s overall relationship with the Soviet Union. What threatened the U.S. was less the number of Soviet missiles than the climate of antagonism and fear that in 1983, when NATO carried out a military exercise called Able Archer that Soviet leaders mistook for preparations for a first strike, had almost resulted in accidental nuclear war. By embracing arms control, Reagan also made the United States appear less threatening to Soviet leaders, which made it easier for Gorbachev, in 1989, to convince the Politburo that Russia no longer needed its security belt of Eastern European client states. “I might have helped him see,” Reagan observed, “that the Soviet Union had less to fear from the West than he thought, and that the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe wasn’t needed for the security of the Soviet Union.”

Unlike Reagan, Donald Trump is not a nuclear abolitionist. But he does place an enormous faith in his ability to cut deals. He scorns agreements crafted by his political opponents, often without knowing what’s in them. Yet he loves the idea of crafting his own deals, and thus winning the public vindication and glory he’s sure he deserves.

Trump also tends to judge foreign leaders personally, not ideologically. He has no problem embracing dictators. He likes people who like him, and make him look good. When asked during the 2016 presidential campaign why he spoke so positively about Vladimir Putin, Trump explained that Putin had spoken positively about him.

These two factors help explain why Trump—after trading insults and threats with Kim Jong Un last year—has in recent months executed such a dramatic policy shift. Partly, Trump is infatuated with the optics of a summit. He’s watched the global adulation that accompanied Kim’s meeting with South Korean leader Moon Jae In. He’s talked about the “great celebration” that would accompany a nuclear deal and tweeted that the summit could be “a very special moment for World Peace!”

Together, Kim and Moon have also shrewdly flattered Trump. Moon has proposed that he get the Nobel Prize, an idea Trump clearly relishes. And Kim, by releasing three U.S. hostages, gave Trump a much appreciated political boost. Trump has reciprocated in strikingly personal terms. He’s described Kim as “very honorable,” called his statements “warm,” and thanked him for “a very smart and gracious gesture.” In briefly cancelling their summit last month, Trump sounded like a jilted lover. He personally drafted a letter to Kim that bemoaned the “tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your recent statement” which undermined the “wonderful dialogue that was building up between you and me.” But then, after receiving a “very nice letter” from Kim, he declared that the summit was back on.

All this stands in sharp contrast to top Trump advisers who, like Weinberger, Casey, Haig, and Kirkpatrick during the Reagan years, fear appearing naive. In his interviews about North Korea, John Bolton has repeatedly insisted that the Trump administration is not “starry eyed” about Kim’s regime. Mike Pompeo likes to say that “this administration has its eyes wide open.” Both men have tried to lay down clear, aggressive markers for what constitutes North Korean denuclearization.

Trump has not. Like Reagan, he’s been both sunnier and vaguer than the people around him. “I never said [North Korea’s nuclear program] goes in one meeting. I think it’s going to be a process,” he remarked recently. “But the relationships are building, and that’s a very positive thing.” The New York Timeshas reported that “some of [Trump’s] aides say privately they worry that the president, with an eye on the history books and a flair for the theatrical, is determined to emerge [from the summit] with a victory, even if it falls short of his stated goals.” And, as with Reagan, hawks aren’t the only ones who fear that an ignorant, romantic president is stumbling towards disaster. Centrists do, too. Last month John Brennan, Obama’s former CIA director, warned that Kim “has manipulated and quite frankly duped Mr. Trump.”

But Trump’s lack of focus on the details of denuclearization may be a good thing. Like Reagan, he seems to sense that the nuclear technicalities matter less than the political relationship. In this sense, he’s following the lead of South Korean President Moon, whose country is most at risk from North Korea. Moon recognizes that whether or not a summit leads to North Korea’s rapid—or even ultimate—denuclearization, it can bring a warming of relations that will, in and of itself, decrease the chances of war. As with Able Archer in the 1980s, it is North Korean missile tests and joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that pose the greatest danger of accidental war. Just limiting these would make Northeast Asia, and the world, a lot safer.

I doubt Kim has any interest in being Gorbachev. More likely, he wants to follow Xi Jinping, and use economic development to fortify his hold on power. That requires foreign investment, probably less from the United States than from South Korea, China, and Japan. And that requires an easing of sanctions and a better relationship with Washington.

Even if Kim’s right, and greater economic openness solidifies his hold on power, his people will benefit. China’s per capita GDP is four and a half times North Korea’s. And while Beijing remains despotic, there’s a vast gap between life in authoritarian, prosperous China and impoverished, totalitarian North Korea. It’s also possible that, as foreign influences pour into North Korea, Kim’s barbaric regime will lose control and the peninsula will move towards reunification, which would constitute one of the greatest achievements of our time. Either way, improving relations with North Korea is a moral imperative. The academic evidence is clear: Economic integration is a far better instrument for democratic change than are economic sanctions.

The danger at Tuesday’s summit isn’t that Trump gets duped. It’s that hardliners like Bolton—who briefly derailed the budding Trump-Kim bromance with his threatening comments about the Libya model—do so again. Progressives can help guard against that by supporting Trump’s current path, and giving him the acclaim his fragile ego requires. As Reagan showed, uninformed optimism is sometimes wiser than weary realism. Even when the uninformed optimist is Donald Trump.

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