The Current

How much credit does Donald Trump deserve for Korean leader summit?

The historic summit between North and South Korea has happened under Donald Trump's administration, but experts are divided over what exactly prompted Kim Jong-un to come to the table.

Trump's rhetoric got Kim Jong-un's attention, says former Republican strategist

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the summit on Friday, where they committed to officially ending the Korean War. (Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images)
Listen23:52

Read Story Transcript

Depending on who you ask, President Donald Trump was either instrumental in getting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table or had little impact.

Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of Korean studies at Tufts University, doesn't think that the president's tweets and their hardline rhetoric were having an effect.

"'Fire and Fury the likes of which the world has never seen before': that threat was made on Aug. 8 last year."

Three days later, the president also tweeted that all military options were ready to go, Lee said.

"In late August, just three weeks later, Kim Jong-un's fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan.

"And then five days later, on Sept. 3, Kim had his nation's most powerful nuclear test conducted — a thermonuclear test that fractured the mountain above the test site.

"That doesn't strike me as the behaviour of a frightened man," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Kim met South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a historic summit on Friday where they committed to the goals of complete denuclearization and officially ending the Korean War. Trump is expected to meet Kim in the coming weeks, and has been credited with getting the leader of the rogue state to the table.

Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-In take ceremonial steps into each other's countries at border town 1:12

The progress may be less to do with Trump's bark and more to do with his bite, according to Lee.

"Many people have the misperception that U.S. sanctions against North Korea have always been very tough, even maxed out — it's simply not true," he said.

"Trump really is the first U.S. president to enforce sanctions against North Korea in a meaningful way," he said.

Credit owed to Trump: strategist 

Likewise, Beau Phillips, a former Republican strategist, said Trump achieved more than his predecessors. 

"When it came to North Korea, he made clear from the start that he was going to take a much harder line," he said.

Barack Obama "chose to turn a blind eye for eight years," he said, while under Bill Clinton, North Korea received hundreds of millions "in exchange for actions that were only momentary in nature."

The summit concluded with a banquet at Panmunjom, attended by the leaders and their wives, Ri Sol-ju, left, and Kim Jung-sook, right. (Korea Summit Press Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

"President Bush frankly didn't do much better," he said.

"Things are moving in a direction that they have not, if ever, moved before and President Trump certainly has to get a lot of credit for that."

"I would never argue that crazy is a strategy," said Phillips, who has been critical of the president in the past.

But "this sort of threat, this sort of aggression, this sort of-chest pounding and table-pounding," he said, is sometimes the only thing that an opponent like North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will respond to.

"And it seems to be working," 

Can we trust North Korea?

Lee is skeptical that the change of heart is genuine.

"It is a ploy that we've seen since at least 1972 when the grandfather — all of a sudden — put on a nicer face and invited Americans to come and visit him."

"The leader comes across as affable, not a raving lunatic, and quite reasonable," Lee told Tremonti, "and the outsider comes away impressed."

U.S. President Donald Trump complimented Kim Jong-un this week following the Inter-Korea meeting, but he appears to remain wary of dealing with North Korea. A meeting between Trump and Kim has been talked about, but no date has been confirmed. If it does happen, the two leaders would meet within the next few weeks. 3:06

He added that "when you've seen Rambo I, II and III, by the time Rambo IV comes around you have a pretty good idea how it's not going to end."

When the two leaders meet, he predicted, Trump will be "moved by his own hubris and his ability to tame this backward Little Rocket Man."

"Kim Jong Un will lie to Trump's face, say all the things that Trump wants to hear.

"Trump will come away from the meeting thinking that he has somehow emotionally connected with a North Korean," he said, "and be more prone to giving North Korea concessions."

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page, which includes a conversation with Tina Park about what the Korean summit could mean for people in both countries.


This segment was produced by The Current's Ashley Mak, Ines Colabrese and Beth Mariam.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.