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Trump Opened A Door With North Korea. Will 2020 Candidates Follow?


President Trump's personal meetings with Kim Jong Un have opened the door to a new level of engagement with North Korea. If a Democrat manages to defeat Trump in 2020, they'll have to decide whether to keep that door open. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe reports on what the candidates are saying.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Foreign policy didn't come up too much during the first Democratic debates in June, but California Senator Kamala Harris did manage to get in this dig at President Trump.


KAMALA HARRIS: You want to talk about North Korea, the real threat in terms of nuclear arsenal. But what does he do? He embraces Kim Jong Un, a dictator, for the sake of a photo-op.

RASCOE: Harris' remarks came days before Trump met with Kim Jong Un for the third time and before he became the first sitting U.S. president to set foot inside North Korea. 2020 Democrats running for president seem united on at least one point. They feel Trump's talks with Kim have not achieved enough.


JULIAN CASTRO: I'm not quite sure why this president is so bent on elevating the profile of a dictator like Kim Jong Un when Kim Jong Un has not lived up to his promise from the first summit.

RASCOE: That's former HUD Secretary Julian Castro on CNN last month. Senator Amy Klobuchar was also not a fan. Here she is on CBS' "Face The Nation."


AMY KLOBUCHAR: You know, you just can't look at this as going over and talking to your dictator next door and bringing them a hot dish over the fence.

RASCOE: Despite the criticism, both Klobuchar and Castro said that it's important to talk to adversaries and open up diplomatic channels. The politics around North Korea have shifted since Trump first shook hands with Kim. Now, a number of Democrats are least willing to entertain the idea of sitting down with a dictator. One of those candidates is Senator Bernie Sanders. His foreign policy adviser Matthew Duss says Sanders would be open to a face-to-face meeting.

MATTHEW DUSS: It would be without preconditions but certainly not without preparation. And I think that's what we've seen from Trump is that there's a real lack of preparation on the president's part when he goes to sit down with Kim Jong Un.

RASCOE: When former President Barack Obama was running for the White House, he made a similar pledge to meet with America's adversaries, but he was pummeled by conservatives for even broaching the topic and never followed through on a summit.

Sarah Vogler is a North Korea leadership analyst at CNA, a nonprofit research group. She says that, for better or worse, any president who follows Trump will have to contend with the political reality he leaves behind.

SARAH VOGLER: If Trump's approach does not yield significant gains or success, then it is going to be very difficult for whoever comes after him to justify why their leader-to-leader approach will be different.

RASCOE: Vogler says Trump's unconventional presidency has given him leeway that more traditional politicians may not enjoy.

VOGLER: The conditions may never get to the point where a U.S. Democratic president would have the domestic support or the political support to offer up the kinds of opening negotiating positions that the North Koreans are interested in.

RASCOE: While North Korea may not come up much during the second Democratic debate next week, the country continues to test missiles and will be a challenge for whoever's president after 2020. Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.