President Trump’s rhetoric regarding North Korea has been described as bellicose and simplistic, dark and scary, childish and ineffective. The reality is far different.
A couple weeks ago, Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae In met at the demilitarized zone, shook hands and agreed to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and to end hostilities. Later this month, Trump and Kim will meet. These historic developments should make his critics eat crow.
Trump’s foreign policy skills were doubted from the beginning. In April 2016, then-candidate Trump delivered his first foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel. In his speech he briefly mentioned North Korea. He characterized the situation as out of control, and portrayed Obama as watching helplessly as North Korea increased its nuclear reach.
Madeleine Albright served as U.N. ambassador from 1993 to 1997, as secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, and is currently a professor of international relations at The Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Following Trump’s speech, she took her criticisms to Twitter: “Trump demonstrates no real understanding of complex international issues and has no serious proposals for how to address them.”
She added: “The so-called #TrumpDoctrine is simply bellicose rhetoric strung together with contradictory statements. Bluster is no strategy, Mr. Trump.”
In a conference call for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, Albright added: “I’ve never seen such a combo of simplistic slogans and contradictions and misstatements in one speech.”
Tension increased throughout 2017. Congress passed sanctions against North Korea in July, which Trump signed. The following month, these were expanded to cover corporations that do business with North Korea. In August, Trump held a press conference at his property in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he said North Korean actions would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
In September 2017, Trump delivered a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. He described North Korea as a depraved regime that engaged in starvation, imprisonment, torture, killing, oppression and kidnapping, and referred to Kim as “Rocket Man.” Trump said the United States would have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea if it continued to threaten the U.S. and it’s allies, but he was careful to emphasize America’s patience and said he hoped this would not be the case.
“It is time for North Korea to realize that the denuclearization is its only acceptable future,” he said.
Albright appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to discuss the speech. She said it was unwise to discuss Kim so prominently. “I think it in some ways it strengthened Kim Jong Un, made him the center of attention,” she said. She also belittled the speech as red meat for his supporters.
John Kerry, Secretary of State under Barack Obama from 2013-2017, also appeared on “Morning Joe” later that morning. He said:
It pushes people away, I mean, this childish kind of, the rhetoric. If name calling was going to solve this problem, Donald Trump would have already solved the problem. So, that’s not going to move anybody to do what you have to do. … You have to ask yourself, is America safer because of ‘Rocket Man?’ Did we bring anybody to the table as a consequence of that language?
Kerry should be less flippant about the effectiveness of branding opponents. We had just witnessed a presidential election in which Trump branded his opponents Low-Energy Jeb, Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted — and they shrunk away one by one. Trump is a master marketer of everything from hotels to golf courses, from steak to wine. His ability to discredit his rivals with nicknames should not be underestimated.
Later that day, Hillary Clinton appeared on “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert, who asked her about it. “I thought it was very dark, dangerous, not the kind of message that the leader of the greatest nation in the world should be delivering,” Clinton said, and suggested a more diplomatic approach.
Trump’s critics should have been more modest. Albright, Clinton, and Kerry all failed to prevent North Korea from expanding its nuclear program.
Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address devoted several minutes to North Korea, which he characterized as a cruel dictatorship. “Complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation,” he said, pledging not to repeat the mistakes of past administrations, and calling for a campaign of maximum pressure.
Trump told the story of Otto Warmbier, an American student who had been arrested and sentenced to fifteen years labor in North Korea. Otto was returned home June and died a few days later. Trump looked up to Otto’s parents sitting in the audience, and pledged “to honor Otto’s memory with American resolve.”
Trump also invited Ji Seong Ho. After returning from a brief visit to China, he was tortured by North Korean authorities who wanted to know if he had met any Christians. He escaped to freedom, and today lives in Seoul, where he rescues other defectors and broadcasts into North Korea. “Seong-ho’s story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom,” Trump said.
Around the same time, change was coming to the Korean peninsula. North and South had come together at the Olympics. Initial inter-Korean talks occurred, and Moon credited Trump with bringing them about. Last week, Moon even suggested that Trump deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.
Only time will tell if Trump can resolve this problem. There are plenty of reasons to be sceptical of Kim’s intentions. Even if no agreement is reached, Trump can walk out of the summit with his head held high. The world did not blow up, as some of his critics feared. His attention, consistency, rhetoric and sanctions succeeded in bringing the “Rocket Man” to the negotiating table. You might call it bluster, but at least it worked. Trump did not need any advice from Secretaries Albright, Clinton or Kerry. He did not need foreign policy intellects, well-mannered diplomacy or Chinese leadership. He did it his way — and the world could soon be a little safer because of it.