North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in raise their hands after a joint statement in the border village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone of South Korea. (Korea Summit Press Pool via AP)
According to many national security observers, foreign dignitaries and the president himself, Donald Trump earned much credit for the apparent successful Korean summit in Panmunjom last week. Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell told CBS News, "I think the president deserves credit for bringing us this far, and no president has put so much pressure on North Korea as Donald Trump, and that's a good thing. CNN's Stephen Collinson sums up popular opinion on the subject:
President Donald Trump, as you call it, has significant credit for the historic opening of Friday between the two Koreas. …
"The credit is clear to President Trump," said South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha of CNN Chairman Christiane Amanpour in Seoul. "He is determined to tackle this from the first day."
[Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo said in Brussels that "we would not be where we are today without President Trump's maximum pressure campaign."
South Korean President Moon Jae-In proposes that Trump win the Nobel Peace Prize. Even some of the president's harshest critics confirm his role in the events of the past week:
All these loan claims are based on the notion that Trumps War Attack and "High Pressure" campaign pushed North Korea to the negotiating table. This argument is superficially plausible. Correction 101 suggests that if Trump makes credible threats and increases the power of sanctions, credit for Kim Jong Us makes the decision to come to the negotiating table.
But so it is: even if the "maximum pressure" campaign has increased the cost of sanctions on Pyongyang, this type of analysis is ridiculously one-sided s the fact that Kim's bargaining position also increased sharply last year. North Korea has made great progress in both nuclear and ballistic missile technology. It also accidentally destroyed the mountain where it performed its missile tests. Given these facts – and to be fair – to increase global pressure, Kim is not surprised to be negotiating. I have yet to read a convincing causal argument for Kim's friendliness that can not be explained by North Korea's military strength and economic vulnerability. The latter probably played a role, but the former seems to be much more important.
Nonetheless, Spoiler Alerts' hardworking staff agrees that the President deserves some credit for the nascent signs of the Korean comity. But it's not really because of the "maximum pressure" campaign. Rather, Trump has done two other things that have helped us get where we are today. The first is that he has the flexibility of the ego's mind and size to meet with Kim. The meeting alone gives the North Korean leader great legitimacy, but Trump is clearly ready to make that concession for sitting. It is certainly a linchpin of his "fire and rage" rhetoric last summer, but it's completely consistent with his negotiating strategy as president.
The second thing that Trump has done was intentionally or not signaling that he is willing to cut South Korea and Japan loose in any nuclear deal. Trump's insistence on renegotiating the US-Korean Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), despite tensions with North Korea, showed how little Trump cares about harmonious relations with a long-time ally. Trump's refusal to free Japan from steel and aluminum tariffs is another example.
From Kim's seat, a president willing to shake off allies is a dream come true. These measures could have brought South Korea into a more tolerant bargaining position. Trump's attitude makes it conceivable for North Korea that the dream agreement can be reached: one that removes the United States from Northeast Asia.
We already see signs that the Trump government is ready to take this step:
None That means Trump will actually throw US allies to the curb following a meeting with Kim. The rest of his government would not be pleased with this result. Some of Trump's rather Hawaiian helpers are doing their best to say things that spy on the talks in advance. All this could just be a repeat of earlier thawing on the Korean peninsula that has failed.
Still, give Trump credit: He was ready to reverse his own position and undermine our credible commitment to allies in the region. That has brought us into the present moment.
How it promises for the future is a more troubling question.