It is an objectively fair statement that if Barack Obama had done what Donald Trump just did, Republicans would be demanding his impeachment. Between President Obama’s dealings with Iran and with Cuba, Republicans did so. On the other hand, Democrats who praised Obama for dealing with two barbaric regimes on favorable terms have no ground to criticize Trump.
Since the nineties, the American policy on North Korea has mostly been unchanged: the North Korean dictator would saber rattle, the Americans would pay him off with humanitarian aid, and North Korea would go silent until they needed more cash. This pattern played out time and time again. China would rarely engage unless things got seriously out of control. Otherwise, it was status quo shakedown.
After Trump’s election, the saber rattling began again. North Korea tested missiles, claimed it could nuke parts of the United States, then held out its hand waiting for cash. This time, Trump refused. Instead, he rattled his sabers too. He sent American naval vessels steaming toward the Korean Peninsula. He promised North Korea that we could wipe them off the map. He offered them no cash.
Democrats began to quake. We would have global nuclear war. The North Koreans would wipe out Seoul. Democrats claimed moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem would cause conflict. They claimed withdrawal from the Paris Accord would destabilize the planet. They claimed walking away from the Iran deal would cause war. They claimed tax cuts would create an economic meltdown. None of those scenarios has played out, and yet again President Trump went his own way. Here too the North Koreans did not do what Democrats claimed would happen.
What North Korea did was reach out to South Korea and begin talks to establish peace. When the Korean War ended, the parties never enacted a peace treaty; they just stopped fighting. North Korean is now ready to conclude a peace treaty. They decided to sit with the United States as well.
Only Richard Nixon could go to China, and only Donald Trump could sit with the North Korean dictator. The problem, however, is that it does not appear much will change. The North Koreans have done all this before. Perhaps now, with direct attention from and a personal connection with the president of the United States, the North Koreans will change. But given the nature of the regime, perhaps not.
What has happened, however, is that the North Koreans get a big win. Trump has declared publicly that the North Korean people love their leader. He put the North Koreans on equal footing as a legitimate player on the world stage. He sent the signal that the way to legitimacy for rogue regimes is to acquire nuclear weapons. All of these things are problematic.
At least Trump did not send a large cash payment to North Korea, as Obama did the Iranians. Perhaps, we can get some progress from this. But the North Korean people do not love their leader. He blows them up with anti-aircraft machine guns. He starves them in prisons, rapes them, tortures them, and summarily executes them. He ruthlessly eliminates Christians. He is a barbaric monster.
Trump loves diplomacy through flattery. Flattering monsters tends to wind up going in the monster’s favor.
Trying something new is commendable. Giving North Korea’s monster legitimacy is not.