Photo: Jung Yeon-je /AFP
By Tim Beal, Zoom In Korea originally published on , June 11, 2018
As the Singapore Summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim approach we have been submerged under a deluge of articles and op-eds. Most are uninformed, some are ignorant. Symptoms are confused with issues, consequences with causes. Causality is frequently inverted. For instance there is much concentration on North Korea’s nuclear weapons (with little attention paid to America’s) without examining the reason for their existence. North Korea has developed a nuclear deterrent in response to a threat from the United States. Without the threat there would be no deterrent. The question then is not why North Korea has a deterrent – that is obvious though apologists go to elaborate lengths to come up with bizarre explanations – but rather why the US threatens North Korea. What are the drivers of American policy? The key to understanding what is going on, and hence to arrive at solutions, is to ask the right questions.
The burgeoning literature is infused with banality and trivialisation. Redundant pointing out of the obvious masquerades as insight; Jimmy Carter tells us that “The top priority of North Korea’s leaders is to preserve their regime and keep it as free as possible from outside control.” True enough but isn’t that what all governments do, or should do? And then we get journalists tripping over the clichés; Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post pontificating that “North Korea is one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world, a hermit kingdom ruled by a fanatical and paranoid regime. Its leadership is not suicidal, though, and Kim is clearly envious of Western technology and affluence.” A hermit kingdom by definition would not want foreign technology let alone be “envious” of it. Why use just one clichéd idea in a sentence if you can cram two in.
Perhaps the silliest meme is exemplified by David Ignatius: “Trump and Kim Jong Un have a lot in common. Is that a good thing?” We know rather more about Trump than Kim but it is clear that they have very dissimilar personalities. And their situations, which give rise to motivation and aspiration, could scarcely be more different.
And so it goes.
In order to clear the air on what is a very complex but also madly simple situation it useful to state briefly a few salient facts, and identify some illusions.
Historical and geopolitical context
Firstly the historical background which provides the context for the situation that has developed:
In 1945, at the end of the Pacific War, the United States divided Korea. The Soviet Union acquiesced to this American initiative, and Stalin has been criticised, fairly or otherwise, for bowing to this division which was to have such calamitous consequences. The Korean peninsula was very unusual in that being a geographical cul-de-sac it was racially homogeneous. There were no layers of invasion and migration such as was common in many parts of the world. It was no fissiparous Balkans with simmering ethnic tensions. There was no reason or excuse for the division beyond US geopolitical strategy. The US wanted to protect its war booty of conquered Japan from any involvement by, threat or contagion from the Soviet Union. Occupying South Korea gave it a beachhead on the Northeast Asian mainland and established a “forward military presence” from which to contain and threaten the Soviet Union and dominate the area. Over time the focus has of course shifted to China (in 1945 the US still “owned” China, or the large part of it under Chiang Kai-shek). However this basic tenant of US policy still obtains; the Korean peninsula is a subset of a more general policy. When the US looks at Korea it sees China. Although the American relationship with divided Korea has developed a life of its own over the decades, Koreans are still seen essentially as pawns to be deployed, and perhaps sacrificed, in order to checkmate China.
The relevance of this is seen in the deep unease the US foreign policy establishment feels over Trump’s agreement to a summit with Kim Jong Un. They are afraid that in his ignorance and his narcissistic desire to get a Nobel Prize he may inadvertently imperil what they perceive as the cornerstone of US Asia policy. Thus, for instance, we have former Pentagon official Van Jackson writing:
Is American strategy in Asia — which necessitates a forward military presence in places like South Korea—more or less of a priority than achieving denuclearization? In short, what alternative futures in Korea most and least serve U.S. interests? There’s no sign that Trump has wrestled with these questions…
Trump’s recent tweets on North Korea suggest he’s desperate for a deal, which would bring him much needed favorable news headlines amid so many domestic political scandals. He also keeps leaving hints that he really wants to claim he’s the man who ended the Korean War, even though he’s likely never stopped to ask why it is that North Korea, too, has always wanted the United States to agree to end the war. With a peace treaty in hand, Kim would undermine the single most important factor justifying the U.S. troop presence in Korea, and by extension, the U.S. alliance with South Korea. Kim need not demand immediate troop withdrawal as part of a peace treaty. At the first sign of post-peace friction, Kim can wave that treaty in America’s face and say, “Yankee go home.” That would immediately spark debates in Seoul about the future of the alliance, and with a peace treaty in hand, anti-American activists in the South will have a much stronger case for pushing out the United States than in decades past.
If Trump foolishly lets peace break out in Korean then the Yankees may be forced to leave and that would undermine the containment of China.
The mythical North Korean threat
Despite the unrelenting hype and hysteria about the “North Korean threat” it is clear it is mythical, a construct to serve other purposes, from the geopolitical, as above, to pork barrel military-industrial complex. The United States has the most powerful military in the world, in history we are told, and its own military budget is nearly as great as the rest of the world put together. Bring it its alliance system – NATO, South Korea, Japan, Australia (and don’t forget New Zealand) the advantage over any possible adversary is incredible: greater than China 7 times, Russia 15 times and North Korea perhaps up to 1000 times.
North Korea can threaten to retaliate against a US attack, though this would be a suicidal “Samson option.” But that is the nature of deterrence. However it cannot initiate an attack on the United States; there is no possible motive, nothing to be gained, defeat and destruction would be certain. North Korea cannot “threaten the United States” and never will be able to. That the North Korean threat has gained such credence despite being obviously ridiculous is one of the great propaganda coups of our times.
There are number of consequences of this but two deserve special mention.
North Korea is frequently accused of cheating on agreements made with the US. The actual evidence points in the other direction but even if it were true it would not really matter that much. No possible cheating that North Korea can do would tilt the balance of power. Squirreling away some plutonium or uranium, or a missile of two, would lead nowhere; the US would still have the overwhelming preponderance of power. The same does not apply in the other direction of course. If the US gets North Korea to disarm and then subsequently breaks its promises and attacks, as with Libya, then North Korea could be destroyed, as was Libya.
It also follows that North Korea’s nuclear deterrent, rather than being a threat to the world as it is often portrayed, is in fact peace-enhancing. The US political scientist Kenneth Waltz has pointed out that nuclear weapons in the possession of a small threatened country (he was thinking of Iran) deters a larger aggressor. The powerful country cannot attack the weaker one for fear of the deterrent, and the weaker one cannot attack the more powerful for the reasons discussed above. Peace, uneasy perhaps, but peace none the less, prevails.
Two interrelated American fantasies are relevant here – exceptionalism and solipsism.
The notion that the United States is an “Exceptional” country has a long history going back to its origins. In fact the puritan leader John Winthrop used the biblical analogy of a “city upon the hill” to which the whole world would look up to before he actually reached shore in Massachusetts in 1630. Since then exceptionalism has been a recurring theme in American political thought and up to today and was embraced by George W Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama – “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”
If America is “exceptional” then it is above the normal rules of international law and it can, for instance, invade other countries or interfere in their affairs with impunity. A recent article in the establishment journal Foreign Policy after the Venezuela election produced an outcome not to Washington’s liking illustrates the mind-set: “It’s Time for a Coup in Venezuela.” Exceptionalism easily morphs into imperialism. Double standards are at the core of exceptionalism and this manifests itself in various ways, but of particular relevance here is the idea that it is quite right and proper for the United States to have nuclear weapons but not, for instance, North Korea. As the Editorial Board of the Washington Post tellingly put it, with no sense of irony, and no mention of any American concessions or commitments, “Trump must get North Korea to come completely clean.” Negotiations and their outcomes are not seen as anything that has any real element of reciprocity. Don Balz in the Washington Post quite unselfconsciously lays it out:
[A successful outcome to the summit would produce]… a framework that includes an explicit agreement by the North Koreans to denuclearize; a willingness on their part to constrain their ballistic-missile program (and not just long-range missiles that could reach the United States but also those that threaten its immediate neighbors); and a commitment to an intrusive verification system.
In return, the United States could offer help in producing a peace treaty between North Korea and South Korea, pledge not to invade North Korea, hold out the possibility of diplomatic relations if North Korea lives up to its promises and probably offer assurance of economic assistance in the future.
There is no suggestion that the United States might denuclearize or even cut back its own military programmes; that is for others to do. The United States merely makes some vague promises that it might conform to international practice and establish diplomatic relations.
There is no cognisance that this is a matter of brute force, of the strong trying to impose its will on the weak, in the way that a Mafia boss might make similar demands. It is seen as the natural order of things and therein lies a danger. A state consciously applying the threat of force to back up unreasonable demands may do that in a rational manner and back off if the costs are seen as too high. A state imbued with the entitlement of exceptionalism may not behave so rationally. Although the entitlement of exceptionalism must be intensely satisfying for the American elite there is a growing resistance, both from adversaries and allies, to American exceptionalism driven partly, but not exclusively by Trump’s crassness. This is encapsulated by the iconic photo of Angela Merkel, fists on table, glaring at a sitting Donald Trump at the G7 in Canada.
Philosophically solipsism means considering oneself the only known reality and that everything else is unsure but it also taken by extension to mean being self-focused to an extreme degree. Bruce Cumings has described Juche as “the opaque core of North Korean national solipsism.” He is not alone in this but in fact solipsism can be much more appropriately applied to the United States which is not under siege in the way that North Korea is. This is manifesting in many ways but one of special relevance is that the way the Kim-Trump summit has been couched virtually exclusively in terms of what is being demanded of North Korea rather than what the issues are. This happens even with what claim to be peace organisations so we have, for example, Philp Yun of the Ploughshares Fund writing “Trump’s best option for denuclearizing North Korea.” The US might want North Korea’s unilateral disarmament but North Korea wants peace and security. Negotiations are, by definition, a contesting dialogue between two or more parties, but this essential understanding is often overshadowed by American solipsism. The good negotiator tries to understand what the other side wants, even if it is only to exploit that knowledge. Empathy is a key attribute.
A further problem with American solipsism is the privilege given to the domestic. US foreign policy is so often the plaything of domestic conflicts. For instance the Senate top Democrats have demanded that Trump hold the line in North Korea talks. This, it is clear, is not about Korea but about Trump.
Nicholas Kristof ruefully commented in the New York Times:
Sadly, Democrats in Congress are responding in a quite Trumpian way: They seem more concerned with undermining him than supporting a peace process with North Korea. They are on the same side as National Security Adviser John Bolton, quietly subverting attempts to pursue peace.
While international security is complicated, here’s a rule of thumb: When you find yourself on the same side as Bolton, go back and re-examine your position.
If it were true, which surely it is not, that every country gets the government it deserves then it would be seen fitting that American solipsism is now exemplified by Trump’s narcissism.
On the eve of the summit the US foreign policy establishment – the Blob as it has been called – is running scared. There are fears of war but there is also a greater fear of peace. They are worried that Trump, in his desire for a Nobel Prize, for publicity and ratings will succumb to the cunning and flattery of Kim Jong Un and agree to a deal that imperils American hegemony.
The three American consiglieri
The danger of war still exists but is less than it was last year. Concerns have been expressed that Trump would go to the summit expecting unconditional surrender and when he found out that was not the case would storm out and reactivate plans for an attack on North Korea. Fortunately Trump seems to have been disabused somewhat of his earlier false optimism (perhaps by Pompeo?) and so the shock will be less. He may still walk out, but that is increasingly unlikely because it would hand the peace victory to Kim.
The military argument against war is as strong as it was last year (and the political case even stronger); as Mattis has admitted the consequences would be “catastrophic.” However Mattis, and the military have no desire for peace as his remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue (ironically in Singapore) indicate – “Our objective remains the complete, verifiable, and irreversible nuclear — denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” CVID is a long-standing US demand and whilst it might represent wishful thinking, it has usually been used as an unacceptable demand to halt negotiations. This is probably what Mattis wants; neither war not peace but the continuation of stalemate which serves US Asia policy very well.
Bolton is another matter. He does not want stalemate but crisis. He has tried to derail the summit and he nearly succeeded when he persuaded Trump to cancel it on 24 May. Apart from whispering into Trump’s ear his major ploy has been advocating a “Libya solution.” The key point about that was not the mechanics of denuclearisation as is often suggested but something far more significant. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice persuaded Gadhafi to disarm with promises that the US would not overthrow his government. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with Obama’s approval, reneged on those promises. Ghaddafi was brutally murdered and Libya virtually destroyed. That lesson has not been lost on Pyongyang. By bringing it up so prominently Bolton was trying to force North Korea to walk away from the summit.
It seems that is was Pompeo who persuaded Trump to return to talks. Pompeo is more difficult to decipher than Mattis (stalemate) or Bolton (crisis). It is reported that he has ambitions to become president so a successful deal as Secretary of State would be an important stepping stone. At the same time he will want to ensure that the blame for any failure or unintended consequences will be attached to Trump, not him.
Aspirational denuclearisation is the key to peace
The Trump administration rebuffed Moon Jae-in’s request to attend the summit and participate in the signing of an agreement. So much for allies.
That leaves Kim Jong Un, and his team. Their objective – to nudge Trump towards peaceful coexistence while retaining sufficient capacity to deter an US attack – is clear enough. What is not known is how successful Kim will be in negotiating with Trump. Where will he compromise and where will he draw the line?
“Denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” is an unfortunate phrase inherited from Kim Il Sung in the days when the most likely nuclear power on the Korean peninsula, apart from the US, was South Korea. It focuses attention on symptoms (nuclear deterrent) rather than on the substantive issues (the US hostility policy). However it has the virtue of vagueness and ambiguity and that may be its saving grace.
If the summit is to break through the present impasse and open up resolution in the future it needs to put the denuclearisation issue into an ambiguous aspirational time capsule. The model here may be the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Signed fifty years ago it was a deal between the existing Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) and the rest. Non-nuclear signatories would not develop nuclear weapons and in exchange the NWS would assist them with nuclear energy and, crucially, move towards their own nuclear disarmament. Fifty years later we are still waiting, still hoping.
If North Korean denuclearisation can be similarly made aspirational (and let us not forget that US nuclearisation is not on the agenda, though Kim may bring it up) then progress can be made. This can be supplemented by PR froth – the signing of lofty peace declarations, announcements of normalisation of diplomatic relations, further gestures such as extending the moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, even the opening of a McDonald’s in Pyongyang – but the essential bedrock of deterrence must remain for the moment. The Chinese have a wise policy of putting knotty problems on hold for future generations to solve. Something like that approach is required here. If, over time, the US does drop its hostility policy, does accept peaceful coexistence, does abandon economic and diplomatic war against North Korea, then the need for North Korea’s nuclear deterrent would fade away. Exactly how that would proceed is difficult to predict, even to envisage; the United States does after all have a bad reputation when it comes to honouring agreements.
The key question is whether Trump will accept this? He may well do so. He is interested in a Nobel Prize (nice bit of flattery there President Moon!) and what appears on TV screens. He is not interested in fine print, or print in general. He has come direct from a disastrous G7 meeting in Canada and may be particularly anxious have a triumph in Singapore.
Apart from Kim Jong Un, the key player here is Mike Pompeo, president in waiting. What will his role be?
Peace is in the air
However, even if the summit falls apart much progress has been made since Kim Jong Un’s New Year Address set the process going; peace is in the air. North Korea’s relations with China and Russia have been much improved and both will be increasingly reluctant to acquiesce to US demands for “maximum pressure.” Inter-Korean relations have surged forward (the speed at which the two leaders came together after Trump’s abortive cancellation of the summit was remarkable). If Moon Jae-in’s supporters do as well as expected in the 13 June elections, in what is seen as a referendum on his policies, then the North-South détente will gain further impetus.
Peace may not be just around the corner but the signs are distinctly hopeful.
Tim Beal is a scholar who has been researching the geopolitics of Asia. He has taught on subjects ranging from Chinese politics to international marketing at universities in Britain, Japan, China, South Korea, Indonesia, and New Zealand. He has written numerous articles and two books focusing on the Korean peninsula – published by Pluto Press in London; North Korea: The Struggle against American Power, in 2005 and Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War in 2011. He is a contributor for Zoom in Korea.