According to many national security observers, foreign dignitaries and the president himself, Donald Trump deserves a lot of credit for the seemingly successful Korea summit in Panmunjom late last week. Former acting CIA Director Michael Morell told CBS News: “I think the president deserves credit for getting us this far. No president has put as much pressure on North Korea as Donald Trump has, and that’s a good thing.” CNN’s Stephen Collinson nicely captures the conventional wisdom on this subject:
“Any way you cut it, President Donald Trump is entitled to significant credit for Friday’s historic opening between the two Koreas. . . .
“‘Clearly, credit goes to President Trump,’ South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in Seoul. ‘He’s been determined to come to grips with this from Day 1.’”
“[Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo said in Brussels that ‘we would not be where we are today without President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign.’”
South Korean President Moon Jae-In suggests that Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize. Even some of Trump’s harshest critics are acknowledging his role, with Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., for example, tweeting on April 29: “I think it’s more than fair to say that the combination of the president’s unpredictability and, indeed, his bellicosity had something to do with the North Koreans deciding to come to the table.” All of this credit-claiming is based on the notion that Trump’s bellicosity and “maximum pressure” campaign pushed North Korea to the bargaining table. There is some surface plausibility to that argument. Coercive Bargaining 101 suggests that if Trump delivered credible threats and amped up the potency of sanctions, then deserves credit for Kim Jong Un’s decision to come to the bargaining table.
But even if the “maximum pressure” campaign did increase the cost of sanctions to Pyongyang, this kind of analysis is ridiculously one-sided. It overlooks the fact that Kim’s bargaining position has also strengthened considerably over the past year. North Korea has made great strides in both its nuclear and ballistic missile technology. It also accidentally destroyed the mountain where it conducted its missile tests. Given these facts - and, let’s be fair, the ratcheting up of global pressure - Kim’s pivoting to negotiations is unsurprising. I have yet to read a compelling causal argument for Kim’s friendliness that cannot be explained away by North Korean military strength rather than economic vulnerability. The latter likely played a factor, but the former seems way more important.
I agree Trump deserves some credit for the nascent signs of Korean comity, but not because of the “maximum pressure” campaign. Rather, Trump has done two other things that have helped get us to where we are today. The first is that he has the flexibility of mind and largeness of ego to want to meet with Kim. The meeting alone confers great legitimacy on the North Korean leader, but Trump is clearly willing to make that concession for a sit-down. It’s certainly a pivot from his “fire and fury” rhetoric from last summer, but it’s entirely consistent with his bargaining strategy as president.
The second thing Trump has done has been to signal, intentionally or not, that he is willing to cut South Korea and Japan loose in any nuclear deal. Trump’s insistence to renegotiating the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) even as tensions with North Korea were high suggested just how little Trump cares about harmonious relations with a long-standing ally. Trump’s refusal to exempt Japan from the steel and aluminum tariffs is another example.
From Kim’s seat, a president willing to toss aside allies is a dream come true.
Daniel Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.