Vietnam Summit a Step in the Right Direction

Reno Gazette Journal March 10, 2019

President Trump met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam last week as a follow-up to their previous summit in Singapore last June. Despite the media reports, there has been significant progress.

Not reaching an agreement does not necessarily mean failure. After firing 24 missiles in 2016 and 18 in the first eight months of 2017, NoKo has launched none since. Three hostages have been released and the remains of fallen American soldiers have been returned. Past administrations gave NoKo billions of dollars in aid (President Clinton $4 billion in 1994 and President Bush $400 million in 2007: Source NY Times) and received nothing in return. President Trump gave nothing and received something in return. When he did not get a good deal in Vietnam, he walked, and did so without damaging the relationship.

Speaking of relationships, there are two broad types according to Harvard Business Review: Transactional and Transformational. Transactional relationships involve setting goals and holding parties accountable. Transformational relationships involve building trust, addressing the other party’s concerns and bringing them along. While past presidents took the transactional approach, President Trump is taking the transformational approach. For an agreement to be successful in the long run, we need address the concerns of the North Koreans. How does NoKo protect itself if it fully disarms? How can the US guarantee North Korea’s safety beyond the Trump presidency? Addressing such issues will be critical to long-term disarmament. Yes, we will be working with a despot who has killed thousands of North Koreans but our highest priority here is to prevent him from killing Americans. The rest can come later. Diplomacy often involves interacting with unsavory characters to achieve our goals.

To be sure, I wasn’t a fan of American Presidents meeting with dictators. I felt that it legitimized bad behavior and fed the thinking that misbehavior would lead to a seat at the table. I disagreed with President Obama when he said he would be willing to meet with leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and NoKo. I disagreed with President Trump when he agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un. President Trump has, however, produced results with such meetings, and results matter. Diplomacy is a painfully slow process and de-nuclearization will take time, but negotiation is a far better alternative to missiles threatening Guam, Japan and Taiwan.

Events like the Vietnam summit sometimes have a byproduct of sending a message to other targets. In this case, the other target appears to be President Xi of China. China’s economy is suffering as a result of tariffs as their industrial growth is the worst in a decade, retail growth worst in 15 years, and auto sales worst in 30 years. Their overall economy grew at the slowest rate since 1990 (Source: CNN). Trade negotiations are ongoing, but China’s negotiating position is significantly weakened as they should now be concerned about the US walking away without a deal.

One final point: Much has been made about the President’s response to the question about Otto Warmbier. While I believe that Kim knew exactly what happened to Warmbier and probably directed the actions, this is not the time to get into a discussion about the past. The ultimate goal of this diplomatic initiative is North Korean nuclear disarmament and the objective of this summit was to make progress towards that goal. President Trump deserves credit for staying focused on the objectives of the summit.