In 1985, US President Ronald Reagan travelled to Geneva to meet Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the communist Soviet Union. After years of anti-communist rhetoric and pressure on the Soviets, the two heads of state met to begin a process of reducing political tensions that would end the Cold War. In 2018, US President Donald Trump travelled to Singapore to meet Kim Jong-un, leader of communist North Korea. After two years of anti-communist rhetoric and pressure on North Korea, the heads of state met to begin a process of reducing political tensions that it is hoped will end decades of North Korean hostility to the wider world.
North Korea has agreed to suspend all Nuclear Tests and close up a major test site. This is very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress! Look forward to our Summit.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 20, 2018
While the similarities shouldn’t be exaggerated (Donald Trump is hardly Ronald Reagan), there are obvious parallels between America’s struggles against these two nuclear-armed communist dictatorships which makes it useful to compare the two. So what are the lessons from the Reagan Era that could hold the key to repeating the US’ peaceful Cold War victory in Korea?
Lesson 1: Apply (flexible) pressure
Ronald Reagan was never shy when it came to putting pressure on what he called the ‘evil empire’. In practice, this meant anything from forcing the USSR into a renewed nuclear arms race to undermining communism throughout the Third World. By 1985 the Soviets were unable to militarily compete and mired in a wasteful war in Afghanistan.
But Reagan’s approach was based as much on flexibility as pressure; once the US was in a position of strength, the president was more than happy to negotiate arms reduction agreements with the Soviets that would at last end the Cold War.
Donald Trump’s strategy towards North Korea seems to have followed this pattern. It has alternated between putting ‘maximum pressure’ on the Korean regime in the form of sanctions and a willingness to negotiate when this pressure led the North to promise denuclearisation. Yet President Trump would do well to remember that Reagan only negotiated with the Soviets when a real reduction of international tensions favourable to the US appeared possible. As things stand, he instead appears willing to bask in the glory of having brought North Korea to the negotiating table while ignoring evidence that the North is asking for sanctions relief and keeping its nuclear programme intact.
Lesson 2: There is no alternative to capitalism
If resurgent anti-communism placed external pressure on the USSR in the Reagan Era, this period’s resurgent capitalism undermined it internally.
Reagan’s America is remembered (correctly) as the home of a revived and increasingly prosperous capitalism with which the dysfunctional Soviet economy simply could not compete. This reality became particularly glaring as inhabitants of the USSR and its European colonies became exposed- particularly through the mediums of film and television- to the high quality of life on offer under Western consumerism. It was popular pressure for such a quality of life that forced the USSR down the path to economic reform and greater integration with the capitalist West, and eventually the collapse of communism outright.
Unsurprisingly, North Korea’s statist economy has proven as unable to compete with free markets as any of its communist predecessors. Its notoriously low quality of life, which reached its most extreme during a disastrous famine in the 1990s, means that like the USSR the North is increasingly willing to reform its economy and engage with the outside world. But here too the Trump administration shouldn’t be too optimistic; the North may have entered into negotiations over greater economic integration with its southern capitalist neighbour, but there is as yet no sign of the popular pressure that brought about a general liberalisation in the USSR.
Lesson 3: It takes two
Ultimately, Reagan and capitalism alone could not have brought about a peaceful end to the Cold War. The summits and reforms that resolved this conflict were a two-way process, and reliant on a reformist generation of Soviets led by Gorbachev who actively sought a new relationship with the US and accepted that the USSR’s economy was in drastic need of reform. The slowness of similar changes in North Korea suggests that no such reformist leadership exists there.
So while the Trump administration should learn from Reagan’s hard line on communism and take heart from communism’s inevitable failures, anyone looking forward to an imminent end in the Korean conflict shouldn’t hold their breath. Kim Jong-Un is no Gorbachev.