Analysis: On North Korea, Trump Must Avoid Falling Into Obama's 'Legacy' Trap

Posted: May 10, 2018 2:55 PM

Three American hostages are now home from North Korea, escorted safely back to US soil by the Trump administration's new top diplomat, Mike Pompeo.  This is excellent news for the three men and their families, and may be an important show of good faith on behalf of Pyongyang, in advance of historic peace talks.  Before going any further, let's simply state that it's impossible not to feel good about these images -- the heartwarming moment where beaming former hostages emerge from the plane, waving to a cheering crowd starts around the 7:45 mark:

The released Americans have thanked the Trump administration for working to secure their freedom, and the White House is understandably taking a bit of a public relations victory lap.  This is a win for all involved.  As details emerge, the Vice President relayed this telling nugget in an interview with ABC News:

Just imagine the mistreatment and torture North Korean prisoners, who have no Western government speaking for them, routinely endure at the hands of this evil regime.  The ex-hostages appear to be in relatively good health (unlike the American murdered by the North Koreans), which is still not a good reason for the president to praise Kim Jong Un's "excellent" treatment of them.  As a rule of thumb, lavishing a hostage-taking regime with effusive praise just because they didn't treat hostages as badly as they could have isn't a great look for the President of the United States.  I understand what Trump is trying to foster, but there are limits.  That being said, the president deserves credit not only for bringing these men home, but for creating an environment that brought the North Koreans to the bargaining table in the first place.  The regime has reportedly been perplexed and knocked off kilter by Trump's antagonistic style, which rightly struck Kim as a major departure from previously-established norms.  Had the president continued in the footsteps of his immediate predecessors, I suspect the regime would not be altering its behavior the way it has, even if only in the short term.

Still, we are a long, long way from any meaningful peace accord -- with central issues, such as determining the precise definition of 'denuclearization,' still entirely unresolved.  Trump has consistently hedged his enthusiastic and hopeful statements, which is the responsible thing to do, and it's essential that his administration maintains a deep-seated skepticism about Pyongyang's intentions.  North Korea has played these exact games before, toying with the international community and building up expectations, only to recoil into a repressive and dangerous status quo.  And we shouldn't give the regime too much credit for kidnapping then exploiting human bargaining chips.  This is an important truth:

None of that definitively means that a lasting breakthrough cannot be achieved this time.  It does mean that expectations should be heavily guarded and tempered.  It's therefore crucial for Trump to resist the impulse to myopically pursue a grand global bargain that could (at least temporarily) boost his image at home and cement a mirage of a foreign policy legacy.  Not long ago, the Iranians seem to have correctly discerned that the Obama administration wanted a deal at all costs, exploiting that dynamic to win extraordinary concessions.  The negotiators from Tehran figured that Obama wanted this "win" badly, and that he'd give away nearly anything to get it.  They also likely placed a relatively safe bet that any threat of US military action against their illegal nuclear program was toothless; Iran had, after all, enjoyed a front row seat to the Syria "red line" debacle, which underscored Obama's equivocating weakness.  

It's international relations 101 that any successful pact must be perceived as a victory by both sides, but in cases like this, both sides do not begin on equal moral footing.  The burden of proof and the preponderance of concessions must rest with Pyongyang.  In the event that Trump manages to help shepherd through a major peace deal, verification of North Korean compliance should be extremely robust.  And the agreement ought to be submitted to Congress for approval, in order to install it as official, durable US policy (very much unlike Obama's approach to the Iran pact).  I'll leave you with this accurate but ironic admonition from a top Congressional Democrat:

Incentivizing hostage-taking can be a risky precedent to indulge.  Then again, at least Trump et al didn't exchange hostages for pallets of cash, then lie about it, all within a wider context of a surrendering a giant giveaway to a virulently anti-American regime.  That would've been really bad -- right, Senator?