OPINION: Trump’s Foreign Policy Legacy Runs Through Pyongyang

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Geoffrey Fattig Former Deputy Editor, Hankyoreh Newspaper English edition
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With the government shutdown entering its second month, one lesson is becoming increasingly clear: regardless of who — if anyone — is able to claim a “win” when the standoff eventually ends, it will be nearly impossible for President Trump to work with the Democratic-controlled House during the next two years of his presidency.

As his agenda becomes bogged down domestically amid increasing calls for impeachment, the international arena will provide the best venue for Trump to burnish his legacy.

Next month’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un can thus be seen as a prime opportunity. Despite criticism from some quarters for holding a second meeting with Kim, Trump’s approach to the recalcitrant nation is a major improvement from the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience,” which amounted to patiently watching as the North Koreans developed their missile and nuclear programs unabated.

Since tensions began to melt during the Pyeongchang Olympics last winter, North Korea has refrained from conducting missile or nuclear tests, and there are encouraging signs of inter-Korean rapprochement and economic cooperation as well.

Trump’s willingness to meet with Kim and foster the relationship through exchanges of letters has also helped ease a previously fraught atmosphere.

Although North Korea is often portrayed as an “isolated” nation, it is the inter-connectedness with other countries in the region — namely, China and South Korea — that makes the situation so challenging for the administration.

Despite existing U.N. sanctions, China provides most of the country’s trade and energy supplies, which are likely to be on the rise again after Kim recently traveled to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the fourth time in less than a year.

On the other side of this puzzle is South Korea, which is currently led by President Moon Jae-in, a man who has placed reconciliation with North Korea at the center of his presidency. Moon, who has met with Kim twice himself, has advocated a confederation with Pyongyang as the first step toward reunifying the Peninsula.

Both a majority of North and South Koreans support unification, but external factors beginning in the late 1800s served first to colonize, and then sever, a proud people who had been unified since the 14th century.

Prior negotiations with North Korea have failed primarily because they did not include an adequate answer to this question of unification.  The regime in North Korea has made this the raison d’etre for its existence and has remained in power through seven tumultuous decades.

Unlike previous presidents, Trump has recognized that the dynasty is not going away, and rather than pursue head-in-the-sand, “Ostrich Diplomacy,” he has made reaching out to Kim the centerpiece of his North Korea policy. As such, he has an opportunity to succeed where others have failed.

Securing peace with North Korea is going to require bold moves from both sides. So far, the United States has steadfastly refused to declare an end to the Korean War, despite President Moon’s call to do so in order to move negotiations forward.

While establishment voices have predictably warned against such a declaration, Trump would be best served by taking Moon’s advice and pursuing a breakthrough to the present impasse. By proclaiming an end to the Korean War, the president would be signaling that the United States is prepared to move beyond 70 years of hostility and usher in a new relationship with North Korea.

Skeptics may scoff that North Korea has no real interest in peace. This view, however, would run counter not only to President Moon’s but also to U.S. General Vincent Brooks’, who commanded American forces in Korea until the end of last year. Speaking recently to the PBS News Hour, the general urged President Trump to “take Kim at his word” regarding his sincerity to denuclearize.

Ending the war is only an initial step, however. In order to create the conditions for a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula, the president should also voice support for the confederation drive that is currently taking place within the South Korean ruling party. Such a move would be welcomed by leaders in both Seoul and Pyongyang and would bolster the inter-Korean cooperation that has been occurring over the past year.

Further, it coincides with Trump’s oft-stated goal of withdrawing American troops from Korea. As Prof. Moon Chung-in, a senior advisor to the South Korean president, wrote in Foreign Affairs last year: the continuing presence of U.S. forces “would be difficult to justify” following the conclusion of a peace treaty.

It won’t be an easy path, but if the president delivers a peace deal with North Korea and leverages the subsequent goodwill to conclude a trade agreement with China, he would be the obvious choice for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. And nothing would make him a more formidable candidate for re-election in 2020.

Geoffrey Fattig previously worked as the deputy editor for the Hankyoreh Newspaper’s English edition in Seoul. He also worked as the in-country director of Korean language programs for the U.S. State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship Program and the National Security Language Initiative for Youth in South Korea. 

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.