President Trump returned from the Hanoi summit essentially empty-handed, but so did Kim Jong Un. It’s no surprise that Trump couldn’t persuade Kim to denuclearize. The prospect Trump held out to him — a booming economy like Vietnam’s — isn’t all that enticing.
Kim has at least as much power, and almost certainly more, over North Koreans than the leadership in Hanio has over Vietnamese. Since his overriding goal is to maintain political and military power, the Vietnam model provides Kim with little incentive to become less powerful by giving up his nukes.
The absence of a deal doesn’t mean Trump’s North Korea policy is a failure. Denuclearization would be ideal, but Trump is advancing the much more realistic goal of establishing a relationship with Kim that will reduce the likelihood of war.
Unlike some of his predecessors, moreover, Trump isn’t making concessions that facilitate North Korea’s development of nukes. In fact, Trump’s policy apparently has produced a cessation of nuclear testing, at least for now.
My only objection to Trump’s conduct during Hanoi trip is what he said about the death of Otto Warmbier. During a press conference, Trump opined that he didn’t think Warmbier’s death was in Kim’s interest, and added, Kim “tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.”
However, as Claudia Rosett explains:
Kim was certainly responsible. It’s implausible that without his nod Otto would have been jailed in North Korea in the first place. And it is indeed hard to believe that whatever was done to Otto, Kim with his layers upon layers of internal surveillance and control, was not at the very least informed.
But Rosett also reminds us (1) that President Obama showed no urgency when it came to helping Warmbier and was totally ineffective in this regard, (2) that the same America media now ripping Trump for his statement on Warmbier showed no particular sympathy for him during the Obama years, and was agnostic on the question of whether Warmbier’s obviously coerced confession was voluntary, and (3) that Trump’s efforts on Warmbier’s behalf succeeded in bringing home, albeit too late.
I don’t mean to defend Trump’s statement on Warmbier. The U.S. President should never become an apologist for any aspect of Kim’s brutal practices. Trump’s North Korean diplomacy requires lowering the temperature in our relations with Kim, but that can be accomplished without accepting Kim’s wildly implausible claim that he doesn’t know what’s going on in the country he controls.
However, the media’s selective outrage when it comes to Otto Warmbier should be viewed as an attempt to obscure the fact that Trump has been vastly superior to Obama on the subject not just of North Korea, but of Warmbier himself.