A Small Step for Trump – and for Humanity

The American president made history when he stepped onto North Korean territory. Now he has to show that he can produce more than headlines.

If an American president, on a trip abroad, adds a detour to visit another country’s ruler “just to shake his hand and say hello,” this is traditionally considered a gesture of great respect. That’s even more the case if the detour takes the commander in chief of the United States into a hostile country, where no sitting American president has yet set foot. By stepping over the demilitarized zone and inviting Dictator Kim Jong Un to visit him at the White House, Donald Trump did on Sunday what he loves doing best: writing television-ready history.

Criticism of Trump’s North Korea policy, which was raised from the start, resurfaced quickly: the U.S. president is upgrading the status of the dictator without the latter having had to scrap a single nuclear missile for it. These warnings about legitimizing a rogue regime were not meaningless, as shown not least by the fact that Kim has been drawing on the full resources of his diplomatic powers. He was received in Russia by President Vladimir Putin, and several times in China by Xi Jinping; the Chinese leader even recently found his way to Pyongyang. Xi would hardly have done that if Trump hadn’t put pressure on him to do so.

Contempt for Diplomatic Conventions

Trump’s contempt for diplomatic convention is just as pronounced as his preference for authoritarian rulers. The Group of 20 Summit of leading and emerging-market nations in Osaka once again delivered rich visuals to that effect. Both attitudes undermine long-term prospects by the West to shape the world order in line with its values.

Nevertheless, Trump was not wrong in taking a great risk in the case of North Korea because in this case, he is completely correct to conclude that his predecessors’ approach couldn’t fix the problem. As Trump began his presidency, the young Kim Jong Un was relatively confident and promised his people an economic recovery. It would have been unforgivable not to take advantage of this opportunity.

Yet, the returns on both summit meetings in Singapore and Hanoi remained meager. The fact that since then, North Korea has not undertaken any atomic testing, and above all, not tested any long-range missiles, is actually more than just nothing. But the twofold moratorium is not set down in writing, and according to American intelligence agencies—which Trump always ignores—North Korea has produced enough weapons-grade uranium and plutonium for at least five more nuclear bombs since the first summit meeting. At least the second meeting in Hanoi showed that Pyongyang was not ready to give up its nuclear life insurance in one fell swoop for any imaginable deal with Trump. Trump himself gives the Kim regime enough reason to be skeptical as to whether or not it can rely on his word.

Nevertheless, Trump’s North Korea policy is a total fiasco only if one uses one’s own standards. The president’s claim last year that he had “solved the problem” is grotesque. It is good news that Kim continues to (or once again) consider it worthwhile to participate in Trump’s production wearing a broad smile, and to even say a few words to Western journalists.

The biggest danger lies therein, that Trump will confuse symbolism with substance; that he thinks less about denuclearization and normalization than about campaigning and the Nobel Prize. The best news is that Trump and Kim have agreed to new cabinet-level talks. The biggest challenge for Trump will now be to commit his own administration to a clear line—instead of only thinking about how he can throw them off guard with his next PR stunt.

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