When, in early March, Donald Trump agreed to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the Washington foreign-policy elite nearly suffered a collective heart attack.
For one thing, the announcement came as a complete surprise. Trump had telegraphed his other foreign-policy bombshells well in advance: leaving the Paris climate accord, ripping up the Iran nuclear deal, reversing détente with Cuba. North Korea was another matter. Trump had repeatedly insulted Kim Jong-un in his trademark style, calling him “Little Rocket Man” on Twitter and threatening at the UN in September 2017 to “totally destroy North Korea.” Official Washington was braced for war, not peace.
You’d think, then, that an announcement of jaw-jaw, not war-war, would have met with universal acclaim in the nation’s capital. Instead, observers across the ideological spectrum found fault with Trump and his attempt to denuclearize North Korea through negotiations. They criticized his timing, his impulsiveness, even the fact that the announcement came from South Korean representatives visiting Washington and not the president himself.
Experts on Korea promptly decried the president’s move because he hadn’t demanded any North Korean concessions first. “We’d expect such a highly symbolic meeting to happen after some concrete deliverables were in hand, not before,” tweeted New America Foundation fellow Suzanne DiMaggio. (In fact, the North Koreans had declared a moratorium on further testing of their nukes and missiles, but that apparently didn’t count.)