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Moon Jae-In and Donald Trump
President Donald Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-In.

If there’s one thing Democrats agree on, it is that President Trump’s very brief visit to the Korean Demilitarized Zone to shake hands with North Korean leader is a “photo op” not a substantive move, a stunt not diplomacy.

Kamala Harris said it. Elizabeth Warren said it. Former Obama adviser Ben Rhodes said it. So did Max Boot, one of the leading advocates on invading Iraq in 2003. On North Korea, these Democrats siding with the Washington hawks who have advocated endless war in pursuit of “national security.”

The question is, Why?

One person who didn’t say criticize the meeting was South Korea’s president Moon Jae-In who accompanied Trump to the DMZ . Moon, whose statecraft over the last two years, has largely been ignored by Democrats and the Washington press corps, is a liberal who has staked his presidency on coaxing a deal out of two mercurial authoritarians. What Moon is trying to secure is nothing less than world historic: a formal end to the Korean war and the negotiated denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

You might think liberal Democrats would support Moon’s liberal peace agenda, if not Trump’s. They’re so Washington-centric, they don’t even seem to know about it. Instead of talking about South Korea’s aspirations for peace, they recycle the talking points of Washington’s hawks.

The “photo op” the Democrats deride was, in Moon’s view, a “significant milestone” on the road to peace. After the failure of Hanoi summit in February due to the maximalist demands of Trump’s adviser John Bolton, the chance for resolving the dangerous six decade-long impasse between North and South Korea seemed to be slipping away.

Moon helped keep peace alive, by meeting with Dan Coats, director of national intelligence. He knew the handshake was coming before it happened and he welcomed it.

“Through their meeting today, the South and North Korean leaders and the American leader made history,” Yoon Do-han, Moon’s press secretary, said after the border meeting.

The handshake was hailed by Hankyoreh, South Korea’s leading left-liberal newspaper as a key step toward ending the Cold War on the Korean peninsula.

The convergence of these three leaders at a single place was a historic meeting on a different level from an inter-Korean summit or a North Korea-US summit. It can be seen as the result of Moon’s proactive and indefatigable role as facilitator, as the South Korean president is determined to sit in the driver’s seat on Korean Peninsula issues.“

The conservative Seoul newspaper, Joon Ang Daily,  also endorsed the meeting.

“Such a hurriedly arranged meeting naturally could not bring any dramatic breakthrough in bilateral relations or the denuclearization process. Still, the more the leaders meet, the greater the chances are for a positive outcome in the future. Mutual trust is built through constant contact and communication.”

No, the handshake is not an agreement but it has restored the diplomatic track, by signaling all three leaders want some kind of deal. The Trump administration now reportedly considering a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear program as a first step in a peace agreement. Working level talks will resume later this month.

While hawks denounce the freeze as acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear state, it is only tacit recognition of the reality that North Korea—like Iran—is not going to surrender its nuclear option without securing real benefits.

Indeed, all of the arguments in favor of the Iran nuclear deal—unanimously supported by the Democratic candidates—apply to the Korean negotiations. Carefully negotiated international agreements can make the world safer. Resolving issues of both nuclear arms and human rights in one agreement is impossible. A real deal will require real concessions by both sides. And, an imperfect agreement with an undemocratic regime that curbs the nuclear danger  is better than doing nothing. The fact that Trump was foolish to tear up the Iran nuclear deal does not negate any of these realities. It confirms them.

The last two months have shown that Trump, with an eye on his lousy poll numbers going into the 2020 election, understands that making peace is good politics, and making war is a recipe for rejection by American voters tired of endless wars.

On Venezuela, Trump lost interest in “regime change” as soon as the Pompeo/Bolton fantasy of a quick victory evaporated. U.S. policy verged on the farcical. A scheme concocted by Bolton’s NSC to bribe Maduro’s inner circle into supporting opposition leader Juan Guaido fell apart. Guaido’s hastily improvised April 29 call for the Venezuelans to rise up against the government failed. With military intervention as the only remaining option to enforce the bully-boy demands of Pompeo and Bolton, Trump has walked away from his own policy, reportedly muttering about how Bolton wants to get him “into a war.”

Trump doesn’t care if he looks foolish or inconsistent. But what about the five Democratic presidential candidates who effectively endorsed the Venezuela policy he has now abandoned? They look more war-like than the president, a dubious proposition going into the 2020 election.

On Iran, Trump approved an attack on Iranian military positions for downing an unmanned U.S. drone that would have killed 150 people. When Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson pointed out, probably correctly, that attacking Iran would doom his reelection prospects, Trump cancelled the attack he ordered, saying that it would have been “disproportionate.”

Now Trump has torn up the playbook that has ruled U.S. Korea policy for decades. That playbook calls for North Korea to eliminate its nuclear arsenal before the United States lifts sanctions and agrees to an end to the Korean war. Such a maximalist approach offers nothing to South Koreans living under the threat of war, which is why President Moon and the South Korean press are supporting Trump.

Bernie Sanders had a more measured response to Trump’s “photo op,” which did not echo the talking points of Washington hawks but focused on Trump’s ability to finish the deal.

“I don’t have a problem with him sitting down and negotiating with our adversaries,” Sanders said on ABC’s “This Week.” I don’t want it to be a photo opportunity. We need real diplomacy.” 

“Real diplomacy” is what President Moon has been quietly practicing and what Democrats should support. Whether Trump is capable of deal that puts the Koreas on a path to peace is, of course, open to question, especially with Bolton at his side. The national security adviser has opposed every effort to negotiate with North Korea over the last 30 years and has often said “regime change” is the only solution.

Given the choice between Trump’s opportunism and Bolton’s intransigence, Moon’s diplomacy is the best bet for securing peace and protecting U.S. interests. It’s also good politics for 2020. Trump knows that. Do the Democrats?