Donald Trump Needs to Look to Reagan in Dealing With North Korea
September 22, 2020 Topic: Politics Region: Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: North KoreaSouth KoreaDonald TrumpMoon Jae-inKim Jong-un2020

Donald Trump Needs to Look to Reagan in Dealing With North Korea

Fact: President Reagan did his homework and spent a year laying the groundwork for a deal before meeting with Gorbachev. 

Editor's Note: The following is part of a new symposium here in Korea Watch that will analyze potential U.S. policy options towards North Korea should Donald Trump win reelection. Check back soon for more contributions in the coming days. 

Donald Trump’s historic summits with Kim Jong-un amounted to nothing in terms of progress in North Korea’s denuclearization despite Trump’s claims that he and Kim share personal chemistry.

With a second term comes the advantage of being freer to pursue any strategy President Donald Trump wants for U.S.-North Korea relations. He could choose to do nothing since it will not cost him politically. Or, he could choose to change his approach of engagement, as Ronald Reagan did with the Soviet Union when he tilted towards dialogue after his re-election in 1984 despite domestic opposition. Reagan’s diplomatic approach towards the Soviet Union from 1983 could offer Trump a couple of tips for his strategy towards North Korea in his second term.

Clearly, there are benefits to holding summits. Besides the symbolism behind diplomatic rituals and ceremonies that speaks volume about states’ willingness to de-escalate crisis, there are instrumental benefits. The most important benefit of negotiations between summits is that states can capitalize on presidential powers to make breakthroughs in issues that otherwise cannot be resolved at the working level. Face-to-face interaction between state leaders also generates empathy or mutual trust affecting negotiation outcomes, as observed from the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Geneva in 1985.

But presidential powers can only be fully utilized when a state leader enters the negotiation venue with knowledge of the counterpart and the issue at stake. Reagan reportedly received a personalized crash course on everything about the Soviet Union, ranging from its history, identity, psychology, to its then current leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, before the first summit. Knowing the other state as well as the details of arms control negotiations at his fingertips allowed Reagan to reap fully the benefits of a private one-on-one meeting in the boathouse in Geneva where he and Gorbachev were able to measure up each other as state leader and negotiating counterpart. In contrast, Trump, for example, did not seem to know how the U.S. got involved in the Korean War in the first place.

The trust that was allegedly present between Reagan and Gorbachev also was not produced magically with face-to-face interaction. Trust between state leaders is more likely to be built during a summit when both sides can trust that the other has done the “homework” during the summit preparation stage in terms of ensuring continuity in diplomacy even if it does not occur at the summit level. Reagan, his White House advisors, and the State Department spent at least a year paving the way to the first summit in Geneva. The multiple letter exchanges between Reagan and Gorbachev before their meeting were accompanied by the building of working relationship between State secretary George Shultz and his Soviet counterparts who communicated constantly for months even before Gorbachev became the leader. For Trump’s second term, this means not rushing into another summit. Instead, the administration should pursue various communication channels with North Korea for at least a few months before pushing for another summit.

Interpersonal relations can only do so much in high-stakes, leader-to-leader crisis negotiations that also require individuals to act the role of diplomat-in-chief. If another summit is to take place, Trump should enter the negotiation venue not as Donald J. Trump, but as the president of the United States who has a clear understanding of American national security interests when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear program.

But even if Trump has more maneuvering room in strategizing engagement with North Korea following his re-election, would he be willing, and be able to decenter “Donald J. Trump” from his next summit with Kim Jong-un?

Minseon Ku is a PhD candidate in Political Science (International Relations/Political Psychology) at The Ohio State University.

Image: Reuters.