The Memo: Korean thaw gives Trump a big boost

The historic meeting between the leaders of North Korea and South Korea is forcing critics of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier DNC says it was targeted by Russian hackers after fall midterms BuzzFeed stands by Cohen report: Mueller should 'make clear what he's disputing' MORE to acknowledge that his much-derided strategy might be bearing fruit.

Trump’s approach to North Korea, including his famous derision of its leader Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man” and his talk about the size of his nuclear button, elicited a combination of fear and mockery from foreign policy experts and other elite voices. So too did his threat during a United Nations speech last September to “totally destroy” North Korea. 

But the positive mood music from the dramatic meeting between Kim and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in, as well as the ongoing plans for a Trump-Kim summit, are winning praise from unexpected quarters. 

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“President Trump’s tightening of sanctions and his belligerent rhetoric genuinely did change the equation,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof — no fan of Trump — wrote on Friday. 

Kristof did qualify his argument, however, by suggesting that Trump’s escalation had been primarily important not because it had intimidated Kim but because it had startled Moon into making overtures to the North Koreans. 

Voices from different ideological perspectives made similar points.

Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told The Hill that it seemed to him as if both North Korea and South Korea had “become very concerned about the possibility of conflict.” 

Cheng said that, when it comes to threats of military action, “Trump has more credibility.” 

With previous American presidents of either party, he suggested, “very clearly the North Koreans did not take that as being a credible threat.”

Other observers said the lion’s share of the praise should go not to Trump, but to the South Korean president. 

"The person who deserves most credit is President Moon of South Korea. He has played a very savvy game for the last year and he is doing his level best to stay one step ahead of both sides," said Michael Fuchs, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress. "To date he has proven very deft." 

Still, members of the Trump administration are taking the opportunity to emphasize what they see as a foreign policy success. 

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisMacron: US 'retreat from Syria' won't change mission to eradicate ISIS Poll: Most Americans want US troops in Syria Fox's Griffin: Was told by diplomat that Syria attack was 'direct result' of US pullout decision MORE told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday, “We are optimistic right now that there's opportunity here that we have never enjoyed since 1950” with regard to the Korean Peninsula.

Earlier the same day, in an interview with Fox News’s “Fox & Friends,” White House counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayTrump 2020 campaign manager hits George Conway: 'Think how bad of a husband you have to be' Trump’s polls sag amid wall fight George Conway: Nothing Trump says 'can be taken at face value' MORE said of Trump’s approach that, “this president created the climate that allows for this.” 

Conway also took a jab at the more establishment-minded Beltway figures who warned that Trump was moving too fast when he agreed last month to a meeting with Kim. 

“Many elements of the swamp are still not accustomed to Trump-Pence pace,” she said. "They operate on swamp speed.”

But Conway was also careful to assert that Trump would walk away from the upcoming talks with Kim if it seemed as if they would not produce results.  

Trump himself stressed to reporters at the White House on Friday that the United States “was not going to be played, OK?” in any negotiations that take place.

There are still plenty of people who are skeptical both of Trump’s approach and about the idea that it will pay substantive, rather than symbolic, dividends. 

In particular, some experts are concerned about Trump’s willingness to engage in a long process of difficult negotiation.

Referring to the proposed Trump-Kim meeting, Fuchs suggested that, “the key question is whether this meeting will be used to jump-start a real process of diplomacy.”  

Fuchs, who served as deputy assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs under former President Obama, worried that Trump might “just want to tweet out photos of the two leaders smiling together and declare victory.” 

Even the biggest issues are still far from resolved. The meeting between Kim and Moon produced an agreement to “denuclearize” the Korean Peninsula, for example. But that term can mean quite different things to the two sides. 

To South Korea and its American allies, it means Pyongyang abandoning its nuclear ambitions. To Kim, it also involves some loosening of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” over the region — in other words, a relaxing of America’s commitment to retaliate in kind if South Korea were to come under attack.

However difficult those issues are, however, the various parties have at least navigated their way to a more stable place.

“I think it’s important to reflect on where we were last year,” said Harry Kazianis of the Center for the National Interest. “I don’t think people understand how close we were to the brink of nuclear war. If one missile had misfired and landed in South Korea or Japan, we wouldn’t be talking about this. We’d be sending young men and women to fight and die in Korea.”

There were several factors that led to that dialing-down of tension, he said. But he added that the Trump administration did deserve the lion’s share of the credit. 

“They are the main driver,” he said.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.