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It’s Time to Give the Trump Administration Some Credit for North Korea Progress

5 minute read

It’s the world’s most famous interrogation technique, immortalized by countless TV detective shows and backed by the CIA. And now the “good cop, bad cop” routine has begun to pry open the inscrutable Hermit Kingdom.

On Tuesday, the leaders of North and South Korea agreed to sit down next month for historic talks, which may include the denuclearization of the divided peninsular, marking a distinct thaw after years of deteriorating relations amid Pyongyang’s accelerating nuclear and missile tests.

“If military threats to the North Korea decrease and regime safety is guaranteed, the North showed that it has no reason to retain nukes,” South Korea’s president’s office said Tuesday following a meeting between Seoul officials and Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, where the group were pictured grinning together during a four-hour dinner.

Much credit for the breakthrough must go to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the son of refugees from the North, who has pushed for dialogue with the Kim regime since his May election, spearheading symbolic cooperation such as marching under a unified flag at the recent Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

But it would be churlish not to also recognize the contribution of the “bad cop”: U.S. President Donald Trump, who has turned up the heat on North Korea with ever tighter rounds of sanctions, and badgered historic ally China to isolate the 25 million-strong Stalinist state.

“The Trump administration deserves credit for increasing the pressure and deepening even further the alienation between China and North Korea,” says Professor John Delury, an East Asia expert at Yonsei Univeristy in Seoul. “And globally, there have been a lot of bilateral relationships where Trump has put North Korea at the top of the agenda.”

Like in Egypt, whose pilots were trained by North Korea during the 1973 war with Israel, and whose obstinate backing of the Kim regime reportedly contributed to the recent suspension of $290 million of American aid. Or nations like Spain, Italy, Mexico, Peru and Kuwait, which in the last year expelled their North Korean ambassadors following pressure from the White House.

Read more: How to Stop Kim Jong Un

This is important as North Korean embassies abroad operate as revenue-generating hubs for myriad illicit activities. In October, thousands of bottles of bootlegged whisky, beer and wine were stolen from a North Korean diplomat’s home in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. Several African nations with military links to North Korea have also been pressured to cut off ties, which experts say could trim 3-5% off Pyongyang’s foreign currency reserves.

But more crucial has been the extra pressure Trump has put on China to enforce two new rounds of U.N. sanctions. Despite all warnings to the contrary, the Trump administration has also steadfastly maintained that military action remains on the table. Such threats have been roundly — and rightly — criticized as risking nuclear catastrophe, though there’s little doubt Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken notice, especially when Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Joseph Dunford visited the border area in August and established three-star communication channels with the Chinese military to avoid accidental clashes in the event of a conflict.

Sanctions enforcement by Beijing is key. About 90% of all North Korean trade comes across the 880-mile shared frontier, but recent Chinese imports of coal, seafood and labor have been slashed. As a result, some experts suggest North Korea may burn through cash reserves by the middle of 2019. Reports of a sudden depreciation of North Korean currency to the Euro will also hamper Kim keeping the North Korean elites satisfied. That North Korea has resorted to inefficient and costly ship-to-ship transfers to evade the sanctions is yet more evidence that they are biting.

Read more: ‘North Korea Is the Biggest Threat to All Humankind.’ U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad Talks to TIME

Trump’s tightening noose, combined with a sympathetic ear in Seoul (compared to hawkish former President Park Geun-hye), is the most likely explanation for Kim’s stunning about-face. Not only did the Swiss-educated 34-year-old agree to meet Moon at the DMZ that has divided the Korean peninsular since the 1950-53 Korean war, he offered to discuss denuclearization with Washington, and also confirmed that April’s summit would take place regardless of whether U.S.-South Korea military exercises occur in the interim. North Korea traditionally abhors the drills, deeming them a dress rehearsal for invasion, and stages missile and nuclear tests to coincide.

“The drills were one of the biggest issues that was likely to become a poison pill to negotiations,” says Stephan Haggard, a Korea expert at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy. “And that they’re willing to actually discuss the nuclear issue means they’re really desperate to have talks.”

Turning that desperation into a meaningful resolution will be no easy feat, however, and even if an agreement is reached, North Korea’s record of noncompliance is galling. But the thaw is positive given that years of isolation led North Korea’s weapons program to advance in leaps and bounds, with their latest nuclear-armed ballistic missiles theoretically able to hit anywhere on the continental U.S.

Trump, notably, isn’t being too triumphant, tweeting that the summit is “possible progress” but “may be false hope.” That is true. And its also a concern whether Trump’s threadbare State Department has the expertise and wherewithal to exploit this momentous opportunity. But then again, if it proves at all possible, there’s few better placed than “good cop” Moon — a man with deep emotional and intellectual connections to the North — to eke the goods out of Kim.

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Write to Charlie Campbell / Beijing at charlie.campbell@time.com