Washington, DC - The new tack was made clear in a detailed speech given at Stanford last week by Stephen E. Biegun, the U.S. special envoy to North Korea. Mr. Biegun firmly reiterated the administration’s objective: “the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.”
This approach compares favorably with the one the Obama administration took toward Iran, never demanding an end to nuclear programs and settling for a deal that came nowhere close. When Mr. Trump ditched the Iran deal before engaging North Korea, he signaled his commitment to stricter terms in his talks with Mr. Kim. Mr. Trump’s critics assume the administration will settle for cosmetic changes rather than denuclearization, but its actions and its unified message lay down a very different marker.
Mr. Biegun was even more blunt in the question-and-answer period after his speech. “I don’t mince my words when I say that [Mr. Trump] is unconstrained by the assumptions of his predecessors,” he said. “President Trump is ready to end this war. It is over. It is done. We are not going to invade North Korea. We are not seeking to topple the North Korean regime.” Disapproval of North Korea is not a policy, and the expression of disapproval is not diplomacy.
The special envoy also made clear that the diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea is personal. He described negotiations as “top down”—the product of commitments Messrs. Trump and Kim personally make to each other. Usually political leaders meet only after subordinates have ironed out details.
President Trump’s diplomacy is in some ways more 19th-century than 21st. He has shed President Obama’s view that history has a “right side,” which America’s rivals will eventually seek to join. Mr. Obama’s Iran deal was premised on Tehran’s voluntarily abandoning its radicalism and deciding to join the peaceful, modern world. The Trump administration makes no such assumption about North Korea’s eventual benevolence.