In diplomacy, small steps can lead to big change.
President Donald Trump’s few steps onto North Korean territory last month should be appreciated for what they represent — America’s improving relationship with one of the world’s most insular states — and what they portend — further reductions in tension on the Korean Peninsula.
Critics have complained Trump’s various meetings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un have been little more than showboating. They’ve produced no progress in dismantling Kim’s nuclear program yet given Kim a legitimacy his brutally repressive regime does not deserve.
But dialing back the engagement, or going on the offensive, is hardly a viable alternative. Saber-rattling hasn’t improved America’s relations with Iran. The tariff chess game hasn’t helped U.S. ties to China. Decades of trying to isolate Cuba produced … nothing.
Relationships, such as the one Ronald Reagan had with Mikhail Gorbachev and the one that Jimmy Carter had with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, are the key to change. Trump has gotten closer to North Korean officials than any other president in history — remarkable considering Trump’s and Kim’s mutual penchant for bellicosity — and he’s the first president to step foot on North Korean soil.
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Trump and Kim both noted the significance of the moment, which occurred during a meeting at the Demilitarized Zone officially separating North Korea and South Korea. The dictator invited the leader of the free world to step across the border, and the latter obliged. It’s the kind of development that pays dividends down the road — maybe not with Mr. Kim renouncing his nuclear ambitions, but with wins of other kinds.
Clearly, Kim, whose family has been shunned by so many for so long, appreciates the attention paid him by Trump. The British, Germans and French certainly aren’t courting him, and China — North Korea’s one true ally — treats Kim like a wayward brother. He’ll want to keep the goodwill with Trump alive.
Critics have suggested Trump’s friendliness toward Kim is disrespectful to the family of Otto Warmbier, the Ohio college student arrested during a visit to North Korea in 2016 and returned to the U.S. just days before his death from unexplained head injuries he sustained in captivity.
At the time of Warmbier’s detention and death, Trump had no relationship with Kim. Now, the president can leverage the pair’s rapport in future crises. There already are signs the relationship is bearing fruit. As The New York Times noted, Kim has freed some American prisoners, returned the remains of some servicemen missing since the Korean War, put a halt to nuclear tests, paid more attention to his economy and permitted a black market to operate among his impoverished people.
Overnight change in North Korea is extremely unlikely. But engagement has the potential to alter North Korea incrementally, and that is better than nothing.