Will President Trump come away from negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with a verifiable deal for the North's denuclearization? Almost certainly not.
But despite what America's reflexive hawks may say, that wouldn't make the Hanoi summit a failure. On the contrary, if Trump manages to further improve our bilateral relations with the North and lays the groundwork for future reconciliation on the Korean peninsula, the summit should be considered a modest but very real success. That's because it's long past time to normalize relations with North Korea.
Trump isn't some kind of foreign policy mastermind. There's no evidence he knows what he's doing on the world stage in some broader sense, and no evidence of deep geopolitical thinking behind the administration's erratic moves in East Asia and around the world. (Ending our wars in Afghanistan and Syria because we're tired of fighting; maybe starting new ones in Venezuela and Iran because we hate tyranny; embracing Saudi Arabia because its distinctive brand of despotism doesn't bother us at all; and so forth.)
For reasons that appear to be rooted in Trump's vanity and impulsiveness, the president has decided to break from 70 years of American policy and seek a rapprochement with North Korea based on a mysterious personal bond with the country's supreme leader. That's hardly a sound foundation on which to devise a strategic vision for the region.
Yet unlike with Trump's equally impulsive military threats against Caracas and Tehran, cheered on by Washington's legions of war lovers, the outcome of the president's overtures to Pyongyang could well prove beneficial to the United States.
The Korean War was launched under the auspices of the recently formed United Nations and led by American troops, just five years after the end of World War II, when American fear of a military confrontation with Communist totalitarianism was at its zenith. It was the first of the great proxy wars between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that marked the Cold War, with Americans fighting on the side of South Korea, and Russia (along with China, less than a year after its own Communist revolution) on the side of the North.
The U.S. lost 33,686 soldiers in three years of fighting, while recent scholarship estimates that a total of 1.2 million combatants on all sides were killed. But the war never officially ended. For the past 66 years, the North and South have been abiding by an armistice agreement, with the two sides separated by a heavily mined demilitarized zone and approximately 28,000 American troops stationed in the South serving as a tripwire to prevent a resumption of hostilities.
The world is a very different place than it was when this arrangement was contrived. The Soviet Union ceased to exist 28 years ago. China is a rival to the United States, and a rising power in the region, but it's no longer animated by an expansionist totalitarian ideology.
The U.S., meanwhile, long ago became the most powerful economic and military force the world has ever known. Yet here we sit, two-thirds of a century after the cessation of hostilities, committed to keeping North Korea an isolated pariah state. Because that's how we're accustomed to expressing disapproval of countries we don't like. Whether it makes any strategic or moral sense is another matter entirely.
Peace is nearly always better than war. Talking is nearly always better than silence. Engagement is nearly always better than enforced isolation. We don't know quite what might come from Trump's strange, seemingly arbitrary affection for Kim Jong Un. But the early signs, especially concerning relations between the North and South, are encouraging. Might the conflict be brought to an official end? Could the two countries establish something approaching normal diplomatic relations? Might American troops, or at least the lion's share of them, be able to return home after nearly seven decades? Every one of those possible consequences of our negotiations with the North would be an improvement over the longstanding status quo.
But what about the North's nukes? It would be nice if we could convince Kim to scrap his country's 30-odd nuclear weapons. But the fact is that the more our relations with Pyongyang stabilize and normalize, the less the weapons will be considered a threat. And anyway, we will continue to possess well over 100 times North Korea's nuclear arsenal, along with vastly more sophisticated and accurate methods of launching and targeting them. That's about as formidable a deterrent as one can imagine.
The question of what a normalized North Korea would mean for American strategy in the region — including, most importantly, our relations with South Korea, China, and Japan — is an important one, and one Trump shows no capacity to address with insight or wisdom. But better for American policymakers to have that conversation and debate in an atmosphere of relative peace than one marked by mutual suspicion and hostility toward North Korea.
So as the Hanoi summit gets underway, look for evidence of improvement in our relations with North Korea and in relations between the North and the South. If such evidence emerges, accept it for what it is — which is good news. Precisely how good will depend on what comes next.