US revolutionizes North Korea policy; haters hate

AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

An insightful article in the left-wing Jacobin magazine analyzing the Western media’s bizarre reaction to last week’s US-North Korea summit:

On Tuesday, as Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un shook hands for their much-anticipated summit in Singapore, one Korean reporter observed a curious episode. Koreans watching the scene unfold on a TV screen at a railway station in Seoul began applauding. Meanwhile, some nearby Western tourists, perturbed by this development, scratched their heads in confusion.

“I am actually baffled to see them clapping here,” said one British tourist.

There’s perhaps no better symbol of the gulf in worldwide reactions to the summit than this episode. While South Koreans cautiously celebrated a historic step in the thawing of hostilities that have hung over them for almost seventy years, the Western media seemed to look on with alarm — even anger.

What could be more infuriating than a historic meeting that might — might — lead to peace on the Korean peninsula after 68 years?

Hostility to the summit, much of it from Democrats and liberals, had been a staple of press coverage in the months leading up to it, often from commentators who just a few months earlier had been panicking about exactly the opposite outcome. But it reached a fever pitch over the last few days.

There was, for example, the collective hyperventilation over a symbolic arrangement of North Korean and US flags. There was MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace, who warned that the whole summit was actually a “Trumpian head fake,” a mere artifact of Trump’s “midterm strategy” and his “get out of sitting with Bob Mueller strategy.” Sue Mi Terry of the defense contractor–funded Center for Strategic and International Studies cautioned that “a peace treaty is not okay” and should “come at the end of the process” because it “undermines the justification of our troops staying in South Korea.”

I don’t think I’ll ever get over the fact that the CSIS publicly said that.

You wouldn’t know it from the vast majority of Western news coverage (with some notable exceptions), but South Koreans greeted news of the agreement’s signing with optimism — often cautious optimism, to be sure, but optimism nonetheless. Which isn’t surprising — 81 percent of South Koreans wanted Trump to meet with Kim, though that was not much higher than the 70 percent of Americans who felt the same.

Based on this coverage, you probably wouldn’t have learned that the agreement was backed by the UN secretary general, who urged the international community to support its objectives. You wouldn’t have heard, for example, from the residents of a Chinese city on the North Korean border who expressed quiet hope about the negotiations to come. And you certainly wouldn’t have heard that the summit was considered a great success by South Korea’s extremely popular president, Moon Jae-in. […]

Reading non-Western media reports on the summit, you’d be forgiven for thinking you had dropped into another reality. […]

More here. Particularly amusing in this context are the claims that Trump is “normalizing” North Korea and the Kim regime. One wonders if these critics are aware that the Kim dynasty has ruled North Korea since Trump was two years old. Or that North Korea has been a UN member state since 1991 and has had nukes for over a decade. It’s simply not up to Trump — or anyone else for that matter — to “normalize” the North Korean state. It exists, and it’s not going away anytime soon, barring a US-led invasion of North Korea. Would the critics like that? Or are they just dumb? I’m seriously asking.

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. -Philip K Dick

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Here’s an intriguing behind-the-scenes story from Nikkei, though I would take the information with a grain of salt:

The battle between Washington and Beijing over influence on North Korea has already moved into its second round. And it was Trump’s own words of on Friday that startled the Chinese leadership.

“How are you going to celebrate Father’s Day?” the president was asked in an impromptu appearance on Fox News, broadcasting live from the White House lawn.

“Work. I’m going to work,” Trump told the conservative channel. “I’m going to actually be calling North Korea.”

After the Fox appearance, the president stayed on the lawn to take questions from other reporters. “I can now call him,” he said of Kim. “I can now say, ‘Well, we have a problem.’ … I gave him a very direct number. He can now call me if he has any difficulty.”

The establishment of a “hotline” between the two leaders, however spontaneous the exchange was, will be an extremely powerful tool for Trump. It is a luxury that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has met with Kim only twice, does not yet have. […]

A hotline between Washington and Pyongyang inevitably alters the balance of power between the U.S. and China. Trump may feel that China is no longer indispensable in negotiations with North Korea. He can talk directly. This was not on Xi’s radar.

And here’s an opinion from the indispensable Korea observer Michael Breen, published back in March:

The previous inter-Korean summits were requested by the South. (Indeed, the first one, it later transpired, was bought — for around half a billion dollars — and the second was treated by them as unimportant.)

But this time, it is the North that wants to talk. Why? Love him or not, Trump has done what no predecessor has done since the North’s nuclear weapons program became an issue 25 years ago and that is to issue a credible threat of military action. This was language the North Koreans understand. Until then, when they heard a White House condemnation of their nuclear weapons program, they thought, “Yeah, that’s what you said to the Chinese and the others, and, you know what, we do that too — dust off old statements. It saves time.”

But Trump came at them like a punch in the face.

Not only did he scare the North Koreans, but he convinced the Chinese and the Russians that he was serious and they came on board for the first time with effective sanctions that are now hurting.

He has also, it must be said, scared the South Koreans, who knew that North Korea’s threats to strike American soil were empty and that if its nuclear weapons were going to land anywhere it would be on South Korean cities. […]

And last and perhaps most important, the big difference is that Washington is prepared to talk. In the light of the standard attitude of previous U.S. leaders to North Korea, Trump’s agreement to the summit with Kim is nothing short of revolutionary. […]

In that regard, his historic willingness to both bomb and talk may achieve a resolution that could open up a way to bring North Korea in out of the cold. At least that is what we in South Korea now hope.

And on the topic of bringing North Korea in out of the cold, here’s an excellent commentary on the summit by Tyler Cowen. Of note:

4. As I tweeted: “Isn’t the whole point of the “deal” just to make them go visit Singapore? The real spectacle is not always where you are looking. And I hope someone brought them to the right chili crab place.”

The goal is to show the North Korean leadership there is a better way than playing the Nuclear Hermit Kingdom game. We won’t know for some time whether this has succeeded. Here is good FT coverage on this point. There are in fact numerous signs that the North Koreans are considering serious reforms. Of course those could be a feint, but the probabilities are rising in a favorable direction. Economic cooperation with South Korea is increasing at an astonishing pace.

It’s possible that Kim wants to be a Deng Xiaoping-type figure who reforms the economy while opening North Korea to the outside world. It’s even possible that he agrees in principle with the clever video that his American counterpart played for him during the talks:

Of course, these are all possibilities — not certainties. I agree with Cowen that we should be agnostic about what happened last week. But I think we’re also entitled to a bit of cautious optimism.

2 thoughts on “US revolutionizes North Korea policy; haters hate

  1. I agree. It is idiotic to think Trump legitimized Kim. His family has ruled the nation since 1953 and it’s not like he was about to be toppled until the American president gave him legitimacy. We have tried sanctions, exclusion and isolation on North Korea for 70 years, but they refuse to die. So, let’s try engagement. If it doesn’t work out, we have lost nothing. We can still go to war if that is what the detractors of the summit really want.

    • Good point – thanks.

      We are definitely in uncharted waters with North Korea and nobody knows how it will turn out, but we can all hope that the new approach leads to something less bad than the status quo.

      And right on cue, there’s a report in the Chosun Ilbo that North Korea has offered to move back the long-range artillery pieces on the military demarcation line that are pointed at Seoul:

      Significant if true.

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