Congress Blog

Inviting Kim Jong Un to Washington

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

As President Donald Trump prepares for his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, later this month, it's hard not to wonder if the visit would be more impactful if Trump played host here in the States.

Knee-jerk reactions of many people will probably be a resounding no; after all, North Korea is a family dictatorship with abysmal human rights abuses. However, this view ignores the fact that out of its national interest the U.S. has maintained good relations with countries having poor human rights records and that positive changes are emerging in North Korea. 

This of course comes amidst another controversial invitation to a prominent East Asian figure. Five sitting U.S. Senators - Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) - petitioned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a Feb. 7 letter to invite Taiwan's leader Tsai Ing-wen to address a joint session of Congress. This unprecedented move has been criticized by former U.S. officials and top China scholars such as Susan Shirk and Richard Bush and was met with caution and skepticism in Taiwan.  

These senators suggested that such an invitation would be consistent with U.S. law.  However, a visit by Taiwan's leader to Washington would be a breach of the U.S. commitment to China and also violates the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which has regulated "unofficial" relations between the United States and Taiwan for four decades. It will almost certainly create a catastrophe in U.S.-China relations and cross-strait relations, if the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis is any indication. At the time, China conducted a series of missile tests near Taiwan to protest Tsai's predecessor Lee Teng-hui's visit to Cornell University and to intimidate Taiwan's electorate ahead of the 1996 presidential election. In response, President Bill Clinton dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region, bringing the U.S. and Chinese militaries dangerously close to a direct clash.

Whatever justifications they may have, supporters of a potential Tsai visit to Washington are hard pressed to answer the most fundamental question in U.S. foreign policy: Given the dire consequences, what American interest will a Tsai visit serve? Inviting Tsai to Washington will undoubtedly create a new and more precarious crisis in U.S.-China relations since a conflict in the Taiwan Strait is very likely to drag the U.S. into direct military confrontation with China.

American politicians must focus on important domestic affairs rather than trigger a foreign policy crisis. If they are so eager to host a controversial foreign leader, perhaps they can consider inviting Kim, not Tsai, to the United States as a bold step to solve North Korea's nuclear problem.

Inviting Kim to Washington may usher in a new era of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, removing one of the most serious security challenges in U.S. foreign policy.

Indeed, a visit to the United States by Kim Jong Un is both feasible and desirable.

President Trump and Chairman Kim have established a good working relationship after their first meeting in Singapore. Though it might be too late to change the venue of their second summit, one wonders if the two leaders were to meet again in the future, it should be Kim's turn to fly across the Pacific.

Critics will continue to pour cold water on President Trump's peace efforts and cast doubt on Kim's commitment to denuclearize.  But circumstances on the Korean Peninsula have been evolving so rapidly recently that one cannot look at North Korea today through old lenses.  In fact, Kim himself has changed. Kim has made it clear over the past couple of years that development and improvement of North Koreans' living standards are his priority. He has also been working with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to promote peace and reconciliation on the Peninsula.

Denuclearization of North Korea is not the end but a means to achieve peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula. U.S. foreign policy should include plans to help a post-nuclear North Korea to modernize.

Incipient reforms are taking place in North Korea now. When Deng Xiaoping initiated reform policies in the late 1970s, the United States supported and encouraged him. Deng was welcomed to the White House by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, which helped create a conducive international environment for China's opening up. 

Nearly seven decades after the outbreak of the Korean War, U.S.-North Korea relations are entering a critical phase. It is in the U.S. interest to grasp the historic opportunity and encourage North Korea's reforms and shape the future of the Korean Peninsula. Inviting Kim Jong Un to visit the United States could be a catalyst to speed up the positive changes already happening.

Zhiqun Zhu, PhD, is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. 

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