I should have been excited as I watched a historic event unfold in Singapore. The summit meeting of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un held out hope that the last ugly conflict of the Cold War can be brought to a close, alleviating the threat of nuclear war in Asia and possibly opening up the vicious North Korean dictatorship to the world.
For me, the matter is more personal. I lived in South Korea for several years in the 1990s, and I’m forever connected to the peninsula by bonds of family and friends. Seoul, that emblem of prosperity perched near the Demilitarized Zone, is something of a second home.
But it’s hard to be optimistic. After more than two decades following Korean affairs, I remind myself that we’ve been here before. The Pyongyang regime has broken promises to end its nuclear program. Washington has made its share of missteps, too. And while the Trump-Kim meeting was the first by the U.S. and North Korean leaders, it wasn’t the first high-level contact: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in 2000 for talks with Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il. Hopes ran high then, too.
So I keep asking myself: Is this time different?
In most ways, it isn’t. Trump supporters argue that his approach has been quite unlike that of his predecessors, and that’s why the North has come to the table. At its heart, though, Trump’s strategy is more or less identical: Offer to trade nukes for economic goodies, and strangle the regime with sanctions until it agrees.
It’s not clear, despite Singapore, that this approach worked. The Kims have endured isolation, poverty, even famines, for decades and aren’t easily cowed. There are indications that their economy has improved in recent years, despite sanctions. In 2016, North Korean output may have grown at the fastest pace in 17 years, according to South Korea’s central bank.
There is one element that’s different: the parties at the table. The U.S. hadn’t dealt with Kim Jong Un on the nuclear issue, and while we don’t really know what persuaded him to negotiate, we can’t assume that he has the same motivations as his father. Some North Korea watchers are convinced the younger Kim truly wants to develop his economy and bring the country in from the cold, and he can’t do that without the lifting of sanctions and U.S. support.
Then there’s Trump. He’s different, too, but not in the way most people think. It’s not his “fire and fury” threats and “maximum pressure” campaign that distinguish him from his predecessors. It’s his break with Washington’s foreign-policy traditions. As we witnessed most obviously at the G-7 summit in Canada, Trump has scant regard for allies, past agreements or international commitments. More, he seems willing to toss into the shredder the foreign-policy guidebook Washington has followed since Truman.
Kim may have sensed that desire to break with past practice, and that alone may have made negotiations worth a shot from his standpoint. Maybe the North Korean leader can extract concessions that other presidents wouldn’t have entertained.
In Trump’s quest for “wins,” he could be too quick to discard allies like South Korea — and in the process, unravel the security order that has preserved American dominance in Asia since the end of World War II. Kim (and his backer, China’s President Xi Jinping) would love to push the U.S. out of the Korean peninsula and weaken its standing in East Asia.
That would leave the door wide open for China to march in. Trump, whether through short-sighted politicking, dearth of knowledge or simple lack of interest, could make a deal that might resolve one security problem while creating a potentially bigger one.
We’ll see. Handshakes and smiles aside, it’s far from clear where the relationship is heading. The joint document signed Tuesday by Trump and Kim is a masterpiece of diplomatic vagueness that appears to leave undone the hard work of reaching a real, verifiable agreement to end North Korea’s nuclear program.
For seven decades, Washington has equated its own interests with the preservation of a U.S. global economic and security system. Trump does not. That may be why this time with North Korea is different. But I’m not sure it’s a cause for hope.
Michael Schuman is a Beijing-based journalist and author of “Confucius and the World He Created.” This column first appeared in Bloomberg Opinion.