To hear President Donald Trump tell it, his diplomatic gamble with North Korea is already paying dividends. In his State of the Union address, he announced that his next summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would take place in Vietnam at the end of the month.
It’s understandable Trump would be in sales mode. All presidents tend to accentuate the positives and downplay the negatives of their foreign policy. But don’t be fooled. Trump is beginning to cave.
The key to understanding this is not Trump’s address but remarks made last week at Stanford University by Trump’s special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun.
In an optimistic speech, Biegun hinted that the U.S. was willing to relax the crippling sanctions on North Korea in exchange for North Korean progress on disarmament.
When asked how the approach of simultaneous concessions was consistent with the policy to keep sanctions in place until North Korea verifiably accounted for and dismantled its nuclear program, Biegun hedged. "We didn’t say we won’t do anything until you do everything," he said.
The change in policy goes beyond this.
Biegun and other U.S. officials have also hinted the U.S. would sign a new peace declaration at the upcoming summit, a step toward a formal treaty ending the Korean War. To this day there is only an armistice ending hostilities in that conflict.
Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea and now a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, told me Tuesday that a peace declaration could signal "continued degradation in the international resolve to enforce sanctions on North Korea."
The U.S. has made at least 20 similar statements reiterating its non-hostile intentions toward Pyongyang, he noted. Such efforts did not diminish the regime’s hostility.
Add to this Trump’s own change in tone since first meeting Kim. He has called U.S. military exercises "war games," echoing the North Korean rhetoric.
Last year Trump invited Ji Seong Ho, a defector who endured torture and amputations after he tried to escape to China, as his guest at the State of the Union.
This year, Trump referred to the tyrant atop the regime that tortured him as "chairman" and said nothing about how his state treats his citizens. In December, Vice President Mike Pence cancelled a speech he was set to deliver about human rights abuses in North Korea.
One might argue that self-satisfied rhetoric about human rights in North Korea doesn’t mean much without the will to do something about it. Strategic reticence, one might even say, is a small price to pay if it makes it easier to defang the regime.
But most experts — including the leaders of the U.S. intelligence community — doubt Kim will ever give up his nuclear weapons. What’s more, America pays a price in moral credibility for Trump’s fluctuations on North Korea.
The inconsistency tells other victims of state repression that U.S. concern for their freedom and dignity is transactional.
What are Iranians to think, for example, when they see the U.S. president exchange love letters with the warden of North Korea’s prison state?
Should they trust that the U.S. government cares about their human rights? Worse still, as Iran’s rulers become more desperate, they may think they can earn a reprieve from U.S. pressure if they just flatter Trump and agree to bargain.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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