U.S. President Joe Biden has frequently criticized his predecessor, Donald Trump, for meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and giving the latter undue legitimacy. This is a flawed criticism that Biden should abandon. Instead, he should “build back better” Trump’s dialogue with the North Korean leader, but with a strong focus on “better”.
When Trump met with Kim Jong-un in Singapore in 2018, he became the first sitting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader. Trump also met with Kim two times in 2019. There are of course many things to criticize about these meetings. One of the biggest problems was that Trump was driven more by narcissism than a desire for meaningful results, so the latter predictably did not take place. As soon as the historic handshake in Singapore had been broadcast to the world and Trump had gotten his long-sought foreign policy achievement, he simply lost interest. This meant that the chances of a positive outcome, if they ever existed, were gone.
Trump’s haphazard handling of this historic opportunity could have been a reasonable line of attack by Biden. Instead, Biden and many others have chosen a line of attack that completely misses the target. For these critics, the biggest problem is that Trump’s meetings gave Kim Jong-un undue legitimacy. Biden, for example, tweeted during the presidential campaign that “I wouldn’t meet with Kim Jong Un without pre-conditions. By meeting with him, Donald Trump gave Kim Jong Un what he was looking for: legitimacy”. This draws on a narrative that became particularly strong in US liberal media after Trump’s Singapore Summit.
According to this narrative, Trump had “lost” just by accepting to meet Kim Jong-un because the summit bestowed undeserved legitimacy on Kim. By securing a meeting with Trump, Kim had successfully gained recognition as an ostensibly equal negotiation partner to the U.S. President. This was often interpreted by American media commentators as a major foreign policy win for Kim Jong-un that had eluded his father and grandfather for decades.
This legitimacy narrative began taking shape even before the first meeting had happened. In mid-May of 2018, when the Singapore meeting was in limbo (due to Security Advisor John Bolton’s nearly successful attempt at diplomatic sabotage), Business Insider wrote that “it doesn't matter what happens if Trump's Singapore meeting with Kim Jong Un goes ahead — North Korea will have won”. The reasoning behind this premature conclusion was that “the minute Kim meets Trump, his leadership and the North Korean government become legitimized”.
After the summit this narrative became dominant in Trump-critical political and media circles.
Democrat Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, for example, pointed out that Trump had given “a brutal and repressive dictatorship the international legitimacy it has long craved.” The Atlantic likewise stressed that due to the meeting, “Kim has gone from an international pariah, a brutal dictator who rules over what is essentially a personal fiefdom, to something closer to a legitimate member of the international community”.
Such accounts of the story completely miss the point.
Let’s start by stating the obvious. Yes, Trump’s meetings did grant Kim Jong-un an unprecedented degree of legitimacy. However, that’s not the end of the story. Three points should be noted.
Firstly, let’s not overlook the fact that the bestowment of legitimacy is mutual. Any measure of diplomatic success in negotiations with North Korea would give a U.S. President tremendous legitimacy as a master negotiator and brilliant statesman. Diplomatic failure, on the other hand, is not particularly risky because it is expected given the long history of such failures. Trump is a good example of this. He stood without a single diplomatic win in his year and a half in power before meeting Kim Jong-un. He was desperate for some kind of recognition of his claim-to-fame negotiation skills that always seemed to evade him when actually negotiating. Making Kim commit to denuclearization, however vaguely, was as important to Trump as meeting Trump was to Kim. However, the reciprocal function of these meetings seems to be overlooked in the dominant media narrative.
Secondly, it is a common mistake to assume that Kim Jong-un would be satisfied just with increasing his international and domestic legitimacy. For example, Joe Biden recentlystated that “all that he’s looking for is: national — international recognition as legitimate”. Similarly, conservative MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough argued when Trump and Kim met for the first time that, “North Korea got what it wanted” because “that sort of credibility is all they ever wanted”. To be sure, legitimacy is not unimportant, but that is not the reason why Kim met Trump. After all, North Korea has diplomatic relations with more than 160 countries that, at least officially, recognize Kim Jong-un as the legitimate leader of the North Korea. The main reason why these meetings were worthwhile from a North Korean perspective was not legitimacy, but the fact that they could lead to an easing of the international sanctions that are crippling the North Korean economy. Support for Kim Jong-un among the veto players that matter in North Korea – elites in the military and the Workers Party – is largely dependent on economic performance, including the ability to dole out perks to military and political elites in return for their loyalty. Lifting the sanctions is therefore a far more pressing objective for Kim Jong-un than merely acquiring international legitimacy. In fact, because the negotiations did not lead to sanctions relief, the Trump-Kim meetings were likely regarded as a failure in Pyongyang.
Thirdly and most importantly, if giving undeserved legitimacy to the Kim family is an unacceptable price to pay for negotiations, the U.S. will never be able to negotiate with them. No sensible person would deny that the human rights situation in North Korea is atrocious. Moreover, its reckless nuclear threats are also unacceptable. But this is precisely why it is so important to talk to them. The legitimacy argument is frankly unhelpful because it accepts talks only when North Korea cleans up its act on human rights and nuclear development, but if that were to happen, there wouldn’t really be much need for talks anymore. On the other hand, this argument precludes talks if North Korea behaves badly, which is precisely the time talks are needed the most. It’s a Catch 22 according to which talks with North Korea are unacceptable except when unnecessary. The upshot is that there is never a good time for talks. Needless to say, this is an unreasonable position.
There are, however, plenty of reasonable criticisms one could make against the Trump-Kim meetings. Most obviously, one could criticize the vagueness of the Singapore agreement and its lack of denuclearization timetables and specifics on verification. In that regard, one should also criticize the boundless hypocrisy at display when Trump praised his ambiguous Singapore agreement just a month after walking away from a much more comprehensive and detailed, but Obama-brokered, nuclear agreement with Iran.
These are reasonable criticisms, which one can agree or disagree with. The legitimacy criticism, on the other hand, is far more problematic. It overlooks the mutual nature of legitimacy, overestimates the worth of legitimacy relative to more pressing North Korean foreign policy goals, and forever rejects the option of talking to any leader of North Korea.
It is unfortunate that this line of criticism has gotten so dominant because it forecloses any opportunity for a diplomatic settlement of the North Korean nuclear issue. Like most observers, I am naturally more than skeptical of North Korea’s willingness to give up its nuclear weapons. I also think the US is an untrustworthy negotiation partner with a long history of broken agreements and backstabbing. But the fact of the matter is that there will never be a North Korean denuclearization without some kind of agreement between these two sides.
Kim Jong-un might be in power for the next half-century, so it is pointless to wait for someone more acceptable to come around. Biden should realize that denuclearization is not a one-day job like Trump seemed to think, but a long and unavoidably frustrating process that will require years of difficult engagement and trust building. It will not be achieved in Biden’s time as president, but that is no excuse for not initiating the process. He should pursue dialogue with Kim Jong-un as soon as possible. Nuclear weapons are simply too important to avoid discussing. If future meetings strengthen Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy, so what? Does Biden think it’s more important to prevent Kim from scoring legitimacy points than it is to strive for denuclearization? If so, he should perhaps reassess his priorities.
 Lee Haye-ah, "Biden Accuses Trump of Giving Legitimacy to 'Thug' Kim," YNA, (6 July 2019), https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20190706000300315
 Tweet from Joe Biden (@JoeBiden), (15 January 2020), https://twitter.com/joebiden/status/1217273974427652097
 Joshua Keating, "It Sure Looks Like John Bolton is trying to Sabotage the North Korea Talks," Slate, (16 May 2018), https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/05/it-sure-looks-like-john-bolton-is-trying-to-sabotage-the-north-korea-talks.html
 Tara Francis Chan, "It Doesn't Matter What Happens if Trump's Singapore Meeting with Kim Jong Un Goes Ahead - North Korea will have won," Business Insider, (16 May 2018), https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-kim-jong-un-summit-in-singapore-gives-north-korea-legitimacy-2018-5
 Alexander Bolton, "Schumer: Trump has given a 'Brutal and Repressive Dictatorship' Legitimacy," The Hill, (12 June 2018), https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/391821-schumer-slams-north-korea-summit-weve-legitimized-a-brutal-dictator
 Khrishnadev Calamur, "Kim Jong Un's Propaganda Victory," The Atlantic, (12 June 2018), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/06/kim-jong-un-propaganda/562613/
 White House Speeches and Remarks, "Remarks by President Bident and H.E. Moon Jae-in, President of the Republic of Korea at Press Conference," (21 May 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/05/21/remarks-by-president-biden-and-h-e-moon-jae-in-president-of-the-republic-of-korea-at-press-conference/
 YouTube Video (MSNBC), "Mika Brzezinski: President Trump Can't Erase the Border Crisis with a Tweet," (22 June 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gfm6UGQXRPc&list=PLDIVi-vBsOEy6jMSt_r_SMj9F5tuqdtKe&index=6
 Daniel Wertz, JJ Oh, and Kim Insung, DPRK Diplomatic Relations, (August 2016), https://www.ncnk.org/sites/default/files/issue-briefs/DPRK_Diplo_Relations_August2016.pdf