- - Wednesday, February 27, 2019


Fifty years ago, an American president prosecuted a war against North Vietnamese communist forces aided and abetted by its powerhouse ideological bedfellows, the Soviet Union and China. Today, another American president visits a reunified Vietnam where full-throated capitalism is delivering an economic miracle to a once poverty-torn communist hellscape.

President Richard Nixon ended the war in Vietnam, and in his final years advocated for normalization with Hanoi and economic liberalization now in place. The current president, Donald Trump, is reported to be impressed by the economic progress he’s witnessed and is pitching North Korean leader Kim Jong-un similar results for his nation if he abandons his nuclear weapons program.

Much has changed since Mr. Nixon addressed the challenges of the Pacific Rim. But as Mr. Trump now tries to initiate a new relationship with North Korea while managing global expectations and security concerns of allies like Japan and South Korea, he may find Nixon’s words on the matter instructive.

As Nixon’s foreign policy assistant during his last years, I accompanied him on his final trip to Asia in April 1993. His primary regional concern at the time was, of course, China, around which everything else then, as now, revolved. But he was intensely worried about North Korea and its nascent hunt for nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles with which to deliver them.

Today, thanks to a devastatingly naive deal struck by President Bill Clinton, Pyongyang has both, destabilizing the region and the world. Mr. Trump has achieved a halt to nuclear testing, although intelligence suggests that Mr. Kim has continuing producing warheads and missiles. Denuclearization is the ultimate goal, although the sides cannot even agree to its definition, and giving up the only thing that gets it worldwide credibility is not in Pyongyang’s interest.

For the time being, Mr. Trump and his team are focused on confidence-building measures, the possibilities of which include a non-binding Korean peace declaration, opening a diplomatic liaison office in Pyongyang, human rights assurances and further repatriation of American soldiers’ remains. And they remain hopeful that Mr. Kim will agree to additional steps toward denuclearization, including disclosing previously undeclared facilities and allowing inspections and the monitoring of nuclear materials.

Mr. Trump comes bearing sticks in the form of sanctions and pressure on Pyongyang’s patron, China, and carrots in the form of sanctions relief, potential economic reform and the growth that would come with it.

Not an easy road, as Nixon detailed during his 1993 visit to Asia, which I reported in my book, “Nixon in Winter.” “Because the peninsula is split and the border is so militarized, the leaders in the south have to be good,” he said to me in Seoul. “Korea is one of those places where the United States has a vital interest in seeing peace and stability. The North Koreans are isolated now that the Soviet Union doesn’t exist; they’re desperate and, frankly, nuts.”

Nixon told South Korean president, Kim Young Sam, “The North Koreans have such unpredictable political leadership. Many thought the Soviets were evil, but none thought they were crazy. We cannot say that about the North Koreans. It is the most closed, secretive society in the world. In the short-term, we are concerned with having the north comply with nuclear inspections; in the long term, we must get them to open up because this will cut short the life-span of totalitarianism.”

Nixon continued, “The north is an outlaw nation. It is unacceptable for it to have nuclear weapons. This is an issue of the highest priority for the United States, and it should be for China because China is also a nuclear power and should not welcome any other regional power getting the weapons. We all have differences as tough economic competitors. Each country, however, must be concerned with proliferation, especially in North Korea.”

In Beijing, Nixon reiterated the point to Premier Li Peng and pressed him to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. He was met with stony denial from Mr. Li.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In his final book, published in 1994, Nixon wrote, “Of the three remaining communist states (apart from China), North Korea remains a serious, active threat, not only to South Korea but to the peace and security of the entire Pacific Rim Until it ceases to be a threat, we should continue to treat it as the pariah nation that its leaders still persist in making it.”

Given the very different strategic and economic landscape of today, Mr. Trump is gambling on a different approach. If his policy of cautious engagement succeeds in ultimately delivering a denuclearizing North Korea, an official end to the Korean War and a budding free market North Korean economy, he will have pulled off the near-impossible.

It’s a tall order. But recall that the opening to China was a tall order, too, and yet the president who ended the war in the nation now hosting Mr. Trump pulled that off. And like Richard Nixon, Donald Trump’s specialty seems to be tall orders.

• Monica Crowley is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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