Christopher Schaefer, M.A.
For more than six decades, American presidents have promised to end the Korean War, bring about denuclearization, and foster a rapport with the North Korean government. At this writing, North Koreans remains oppressed, its nuclear weapons program more robust than ever, and a megalomaniacal tyrant—the third member of the Kim family to serve as Supreme Leader—remains firmly in control of the government. Donald Trump’s overtures to the North Korean government coupled with a commitment to denuclearize the Korean Penninsula by the end of his term, has been nothing short of extraordinary. This week, Donald Trump, a foreign policy novice, became the first sitting American president to set foot in North Korea. How did this happen? This article attempts to answer that question and explore the intricacies of America’s relationship with the North Korean government.
Since assuming the presidency in January 2017, Donald Trump has met with Kim Jong-Un, on three occasions, to discuss denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and opening up the possibility of one of the world’s most oppressed countries to westernization. Presidents of both parties, over the past five decades, have attempted, yet failed, to achieve peace on the Korean peninsula. The reason for these failures: obstinate North Korean leadership and the unwillingness by American presidents to develop a rapport with their North Korean counterparts. Mason and Smith (2019) wrote of President Trump’s overtures, “Trump is overcoming diplomatic failures over the past twenty-five years that did not accomplish any negotiations but only strengthened North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities” (p. 2). American presidents since John F. Kennedy have been either well-versed in the intricacies of American foreign policy or spent the entirety of their careers in government; Trump, on the contrary, has spent his life negotiating multi-billion dollar deals and building relationships.
President Trump promised, at the outset of his campaign, to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, end the Korean War, and foster a cordial relationship with Kim Jong-Un. Like President Trump, Kim Jong-Un is brash, thrives on relationship building, and is the first Supreme Leader of North Korea who has expressed a genuine interest in westernization and establishing a positive working relationship with the United States. In April 2018, during a three-day summit between North and South Korea, President Kim expressed his desire to denuclearize the Korean peninsula by the time President Donald Trump leaves office—a laudable but unlikely goal, unless Trump wins reelection in 2020; his current term expires in January 2021 and North Korea has yet to show any signs that it intends to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea, despite their innumerable overtures and alleged willingness to denuclearize, possesses one of the world’s most robust nuclear weapons programs. The April 2018 Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, which committed the two countries to denuclearization and a formal end to the Korean War, represents the most significant foreign policy victory on the Korean Peninsula since the Korean Armistice Agreement—a document South Korea refused to sign, due to President Syngman Rhee’s refusal to accept a divided Korean peninsula. Following the June 2018 summit, North and South Korea agreed to convert the Korean Armistice Agreement into a peace treaty, effectively ending the sixty-five year war between these two countries. The agreement collapsed, however, following U.S.-South Korean military exercises. Negotiations resumed despite the aforementioned military exercises resulting in the signing of a four-pronged declaration on July 2018, by Kim Jong-Un and President Trump stipulating that:
- The United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea commit to establishing new relations in accordance with the desires of the peoples in both countries for peace and prosperity.
- The signatories will join their efforts to build a stable and peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
- Reaffirmed the April 27, 2018, Panmunjom Declaration, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea commits to working towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
- The United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea commit to recovering POW/MIA remains including the immediate reparation of those already identified.
It is imperative to denote that this agreement, while historic, does not guarantee denuclearization, easing of tensions between North and South Korea, or an end to the Korean War. Rather, it signifies a good-faith effort by Kim Jong-Un to begin taking the first steps towards westernization and thawing relations between the United States and North Korea. If Kim Jong-Un is serious about his desire to eradicate North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal, it would be an epoch-making event in the history of modern world affairs. Collinson (2019) is correct: “Since meeting Trump at their first summit in Singapore last year, Kim has done nothing to live up to Pyongyang’s undertaking to work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That refusal to budge was behind the failure of the second Trump Kim summit in Hanoi in February” (p. 1).
Despite the lack of progress towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, President Trump’s presence in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was momentous Trump’s visit allowed him to bolster the claim that he is a statesman and peacemaker heading into a hotly contest election year. In fact, President Trump has done more advance peace on the Korean Peninsula than any predecessor. There is no question that President Trump will use this visit and his two previous meetings with Kim Jong-Un as the centerpieces of 2020 reelection platform. The author concurs with Collinson (2019), “Trump has a vital political interest in keeping alive the idea that he personally headed off war with North Korea and that historic progress is possible as he runs for reelection” (p. 2).
Undoubtedly, U.S.-North Korea relations have thawed. Kim Jong-Un appears to be the first Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea willing to negotiate with the United States and serious about denuclearization. Elimination of crippling economic sanctions for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is an adequate exchange and something the Trump administration should pursue. If, after two rounds of weapons inspections, progress is not made by Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, the United States can restore sanctions. The onus is now on Kim Jong-Un to live up to his end of the bargain. Either commit to ending the Korean War or continue to face crippling economic sanctions. Regardless of what occurs in the next year-and-a-half, President Trump’s “visit” to North Korea was momentous and symbolic. In fact, it was a consequential moment in the history of presidential diplomacy, akin to Millard Fillmore’s opening of relations with Japan, Franklin Roosevelt’s participation in the Yalta Conference, Richard Nixon’s visit to China, and President Reagan’s address at the Brandenburg Gate, to name a few.
The groundwork has been laid by the Trump Administration for this once long-shot goal to become a reality. Success will be incumbent upon Kim Jong Un’s willingness to bring peace and prosperity to the Korean Peninsula. “Peace and Prosperity,” the centerpiece of the Trump Doctrine, is alive and well on the Korean Peninsula. Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, if achieved, would be the greatest achievement in the history of American diplomacy.
Christopher Schaefer, a presidential historian and political consultant, resides in Madison, Wisconsin, and is the author of five books: The Great President: The Policies that Shaped the Bush Legacy; 41 vs. 43: The Reluctant Realism of George H.W. Bush, the Primacy of George W. Bush, and the War in Iraq; The Presidential Simulation: A Student’s Guide to Understanding the American Presidency; Project Mastodon: Building a Twenty-First Century Republican Party (2 vols.); and A Risky Solution for America: The Case Against an Article V Convention (2010). Schaefer received his BA in Politics and Government from Ripon College and MA in Political Management from the George Washington University.
Sources and Additional References:
Collinson, S. (2019, July 1). Trump’s North Korea gambit is already a political win. CNN News. Retrieved from
Mason, J. & Smith, J. (2019, February 19). Trump wants North Korea to denuclearize, but is in no hurry. Reuters. Retrieved from