South Korea’s National Security Advisor got straight to the point about President Trump. He stated explicitly that the announced bilateral U.S.-North Korea summit vindicates Trump’s North Korea policy. In a press conference Tuesday he told American reporters that President Trump’s “leadership and his maximum pressure policy together with international solidarity brought us to this juncture.”
But what do American experts on Korea have to say? They are surprisingly supportive. These are not Trump acolytes, but the grey eminences of foreign policy. Probably not a single one voted for Trump. But each has cautious praise for the President’s policy.
Victory on Military Exercises
Retired Ambassador Chris Hill headed the U.S. team to the six-party-talks in 2005 about North Korea’s nuclear program. He noted that for the first time in its history, North Korea is no longer demanding that American-South Korean military exercises cease.
“North Korea complained about the military exercises every single year, so for them now to say they get it is rather new.”
“These joint military exercises are very important. They’re the difference between an alliance on paper and an alliance on the ground. The North Koreans have correctly understood how important they are. And they’ve always complained about them every single year, so for them now to say they get it is rather new.”
The Sharp Rhetoric Worked
Asked what he thinks made the difference, Hill attributed it to Trump’s clear public diplomacy. “[Trump] is a different kind of president. He seemed prepared to talk about things that other presidents have not been prepared to talk about.”
“… this kind of attitude unconstrained by what anyone in the past has done kind of gave the North Koreans pause.”
“For example, in Washington the last few weeks, there’s been a discussion about the so-called bloody nose and the idea that somehow we could launch some kind of strike against the North Koreans. So it could be that this kind of attitude unconstrained by what anyone in the past has done kind of gave the North Koreans pause.”
Tough Enforcement of Tough Sanctions
Joel Wit has been involved in negotiations with North Korea during both the Clinton and Obama Administrations. He currently is a senior scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins. He credited a combination of Trump’s fiery rhetoric and the economic bite of the sanctions.
“The North Koreans may have decided that now is the time to shift gears and improve their economy.”
“[Trump’s rhetoric] was probably one factor. But I also think the North Koreans may have reached the end of their development programs for nuclear weapons and missiles and may have decided that now is the time to shift gears and improve their economy.”
Wit called the planned meeting “a potential historic turning point away from 50 to 60 years of hostility with North Korea. And so we really need to take advantage of it.”
Top-Down Approach Works
Frank Aum is a Korea expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He was a senior adviser on North Korea at the Pentagon. He compared the upcoming summit to the last time there was a breakthrough with the reclusive regime, during the Clinton Administration.
“Any time there’s news about high-level engagement between the U.S. and North Korea that’s encouraging.”
“I think that the one positive of going big like this is that North Korea has a tendency and a preference to prefer big agreements, working through summits. They’re a top-down regime. Their lower-level officials don’t have the authority to negotiate.
“Remember; in 1994, it took a meeting between Jimmy Carter and Kim Il Sung to lay the foundation for the agreed framework. Later on, lower-level officials hammered out all the details. So I think if we’re going to hope for something big, it’s better to do it at the highest levels.”
Aum praised the move. “Any time there’s news about high-level engagement between the U.S. and North Korea that’s encouraging, especially in light of last year’s provocations and sharp rhetoric and all the talk about bloody nose strikes.”
Trump Will Have Competent Policy Advice
The most knowledgeable American diplomat about North Korea is Robert Gallucci. Gallucci led negotiations during the 1994 nuclear crisis, and now chairs the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins. He has continued contacts with North Korean officials.
“There are those that the Trump administration could recruit that could step up to the challenge of conducting negotiations over a protracted period of time.”
Ambassador Gallucci dismissed the criticism that Trump will go to the summit ill-prepared because the State Department is not fully staffed. “I think there are those that the Trump administration could recruit that could step up to the challenge of conducting negotiations over a protracted period of time. So I think the staffing issue with this administration is a nontrivial one, but I think it’s manageable.”
Gallucci expressed optimism for a positive outcome. This is the beginning of a long process, he said. It’s important to maintain focus on “material change in the situation. And material change means capability of North Korea directly to do damage to the United States of America or its allies, specifically with respect to nuclear weapons. If you keep a focus on that, then I think you can end up in the right place.”