Throughout the weekend the U.S. President Donald Trump’s impromptu summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the peace village of Panmunjom was met with mixed reactions amongst American observers. Whilst some praised the President’s endeavour to continue diplomacy above the pursuit of war and confrontation, many chastised him for what they saw as giving credence to the leader of a totalitarian regime, “legitimizing” him on the international stage whilst failing to extract any meaningful concessions in the midst of such.
Throughout the Democratic Party, such criticisms were high on display, with Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris condemning what they described as a “love in with dictators” whilst other senior voices such as Chuck Schumer also voiced their disapproval of the meeting. A portion of leading U.S foreign policy analysts and scholars also saw the event in contemptuous terms, certain that it was the wrong strategy for dealing with the Pyongyang regime.
However, what then is the right strategy? For all his flaws and imperfections, Donald Trump is right to literally step “over the line” as he done at Panmunjom and aspire to re-write the status quo of U.S-DPRK relations completely. Analysts must observe the fact that it is the decades long sustaining of an unstable, mutually adversarial relationship with this regime, managed only through crisis diplomacy, which has incentivized and legitimized nuclear North Korea as we know it. Therefore, the aspiration to build a new, stable and structured mode of diplomacy with this country is not a “moral evil”, but can build new channels of trust, compromise and conventional behaviour of which could allow America to project and secure its interests in ways that were not possible under the “old paradigm”.
In finding a solution to the “North Korean problem” one must assess the country’s behaviour in a historical and objective context, than falling for the temptation of wielding moral clichés which may raise valid points pertaining to the disapproval of a totalitarian state, yet ultimately fall short of offering practical answers. It is easy to condemn North Korea and idealistically demand that the country should not exist, or at least not in its present state, but in international relations, raw principles on their own cannot always facilitate practical policy. Rather, realism, pragmatism and flexibility are required to facilitate a “greater good”.
And on that note, the reality concerning North Korea’s nuclear program is this: For whatever one notes about the kind of regime it is, its nuclear trajectory has evolved out of a structural problem in its relationship with the United States, of which has been defined exclusively by a mutual “state of war”, crisis talks and considerations all of a military nature. Stemming from a Cold War conflict, both countries have perceived each other as adversaries seeking to directly confront or inhibit the interests of the other. With the United States becoming the world’s hegemon from the 1990s onwards, this framework created a rationale in Pyongyang that to go nuclear was the only way whereby its interests could be secured.
But what if that was to change? What if a new arrangement came into place whereby the two countries were able to move past the comprehension of the other as an enemy? The United States has achieved such with many socialist countries, China in 1978 is one example, but also Vietnam in the 1990s. In doing so, whilst the two sides maintained their respective ideological and political differences, America established a stable state of co-existence with them whereby disputes could be resolved through stable diplomatic processes, rather than military and confrontational means. In turn, Washington’s ability to secure its own interests and influences within those nations increased in ways which were not possible beforehand.
On that note, crossing new lines in diplomacy with North Korea is not the moral failure its critics say it is, such individuals cannot see the wood for the trees. If Trump’s feats can be sustained, and a new status quo can be calibrated which ends a 70 year history of confrontation, the rationale within Pyongyang which treats Washington solely as a military related problem is likely to be undermined in its entirety. This de-incentivizes the cause for future proliferation, the need for Pyongyang to maintain nuclear capabilities as they are and in turn, eliminates a priority threat to the regime’s existence which perpetuates and legitimizes its security state mindset, all of which the status quo has contributed to prolonging.
Given this, if North Korea ultimately comes to the decision that America is no longer an enemy, then that is a huge victory for not only the U.S. on the Korean peninsula itself, but in the broader scope of its regional interests too. Of course, normalization does not mean that observers are obligated to “Like” the regime or to support what it does, but it is important to perceive the bigger picture. The lingering rationale that one should not engage with North Korea because of “what it is” does not give any answers- what strategy do the Democrat candidates have for denuclearization?
Thus, in summary, it is only through creating an unprecedented new mode and conduct of diplomacy, moving away from prolonged “state of war” and the obsession with military postures, can the two nations have a chance to actually find a serious pathway to co-existence and in turn, make some effort to accommodate each other’s positions. One does not have to love Kim Jong-un to recognize that the status quo of war diplomacy and crisis cannot calibrate the breakthrough needed to achieve real results on nuclear negotiations or for that matter, the pressing question on both sides as how to come to terms with the presence of the other within their political world in a non-hostile way.
Trump ultimately made a daring move to go beyond what any other American politician has done, some question his intentions, but the action itself doesn’t deserve contempt and nor does it justify the sustaining of the status-quo, when it yet may be symbolic in rewriting the way in which America and North Korea interact with each other.
Image credit: The White House (via Wikimedia Commons). The file is in the public domain in the United States.
The views and opinions expressed in this articl are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is a British analyst, columnist and writer specializing in Politics and International Relations. He has graduated from the University of Oxford. Tom has written extensively on China and North Korea related issues.