The Korean Peace Process
American foreign policy hasn’t done any real thinking in two years
In late June, just a few weeks after Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un shook hands and watched a propaganda film about themselves in Singapore, several news outlets excitedly reported that the American President had been duped. Their source was 38 North, a nonpartisan website that publishes North Korea analysis and that had found, through examining satellite imagery, that North Korea was continuing to expand and improve the infrastructure at its nuclear research facility in Yongbyon. “Hold the champagne on North Korea, President Trump,” chided a Washington Post editorial headline. NBC News described Trump’s decision to suspend military training exercises on the Korean peninsula in the wake of the Singapore summit as “a major concession,” one that didn’t look so good in light of this new satellite imagery. On the basis of these editorials and the 38 North satellite imagery analysis, a consensus soon emerged: the Kim regime had been negotiating in bad faith, and Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would have to respond accordingly. “The observed activity appears inconsistent with a North Korean intent to abandon its nuclear weapons programs,” a North Korea wonk from the Heritage Foundation told NBC. “There seems little reason to continue expansion plans if the regime intended to dismantle them as would be required under a denuclearization agreement.”
Here, however, is the second paragraph of the 38 North report itself:
Continued work at the Yongbyon facility should not be seen as having any relationship to North Korea’s pledge to denuclearize. The North’s nuclear cadre can be expected to proceed with business as usual until specific orders are issued from Pyongyang.
In the report, 38 North went out of its way to describe the Yongbyon improvements as unremarkable and even expected, rather than as the harbinger of a mushroom cloud over Seattle. Of course Kim would continue to build up his nuclear infrastructure until real negotiations began — you want to enter negotiations in the strongest possible bargain-ing position, and North Korea’s status as a nuclear power is the only reason it has a bargaining position of any kind.
But these considerations did not find their way into the media’s view of events. At every step of the peace process that began to unfold between North and South Korea in the spring, American commentators have claimed that the whole endeavor is bound to fail, and in so doing increased the likelihood that it actually will. There could be no more certain proof of the media’s inability to learn from the mistakes it made justifying the Iraq war than the spectacle of editorial boards demonizing Kim as a “madman” during a period of heightened nuclear tensions, or of talking heads preemptively belittling the US government’s efforts to broker a peace agreement that the US government itself helped make impossible half a century ago. The Korean peace process is a historic opportunity, and it will have been a historic opportunity even if it comes to nothing. Of course, it could come to far worse than nothing. If war breaks out in the wake of the collapse of the peace process, the American media will have blood on its hands, just as it did beginning on March 20, 2003.
Those involved with the grunt work of maintaining the American foreign policy consensus are working quietly to prevent President Trump from meeting with Kim again.Tweet
At the time of this writing, negotiations have stalled. The Trump administration has repeatedly promised a second summit between Trump and Kim, but even the most basic details (date, location) have yet to materialize. John Bolton and US generals have rediscovered the language of American dominance. Trump announced and then quickly canceled a trip to North Korea by Pompeo, who was heading to Pyongyang for a fourth round of talks with North Korean officials. Those officials were angry because the US has so far been unwilling to consider bringing the Korean War to a formal end: while armed hostilities between North and South (plus the US and China) ended with the adoption of the Korean Armistice Agreement, a formal peace treaty was never signed. (In an exquisite example of the hairsplitting often involved in diplomatic negotiations, the most the US has offered so far is to issue a statement acknowledging the objective reality that armed conflict has ceased.) Pompeo did meet with Kim for a two-hour discussion in October, but reports suggest their conversation was merely an attempt to schedule the still-elusive second summit, rather than an effort to hammer out the details of any deal. Since then, North Korean officials, though careful not to criticize Trump directly, have registered their displeasure with some of his positions, including what they perceive as a lack of urgency on his part to get something done. Most ominously, according to a report from the website Tokyo Business Today, national security professionals and administration officials, those involved with the grunt work of maintaining the American foreign policy consensus, are working quietly to prevent President Trump from meeting with Kim again. They are worried that he will give away too much — i.e., that a second summit would go too well for their liking.
Still, there are reasons for optimism. Peace is possible, if just barely, on the Korean peninsula neither thanks to nor in spite of America’s leadership, but because America isn’t leading at all. The country’s ruling party has been thrown into such chaos by Trump’s election that it lacks a coherent geopolitical strategy, and the State Department is a nonfunctioning husk of its former self. Trump, meanwhile, doesn’t care about geopolitics. All he wants is to win — or, more specifically, to be seen as having won. He embodies the decline of America’s global influence even as he exacerbates it. Maintaining hegemony over a peninsula located on the other side of the world requires brute force — that is, troops, tens of thousands of whom are stationed in South Korea — but also some real thought, and American foreign policy hasn’t done any real thinking in two years. What Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in have done is recognize America’s geopolitical incoherence as an opportunity to act on their own behalf. The peace process is primarily of South Korean design, it was underway months before Trump flew to Singapore, and it illustrates the kinds of space that open up, and the kinds of diplomacy that become possible, as the US begrudgingly starts to cede its place at the head of the world’s table.
The US has maintained a huge military presence in East Asia since World War II. By treaty, America is responsible for the military defense of Japan, which is not permitted to have offensive forces of its own, according to the constitution the US drew up for it after World War II. Currently there are about forty thousand American troops stationed there, and at least twenty thousand are deployed in South Korea. These troops were originally sent to the region to contain the global ascendancy of communism (in general) and China (in particular), and while history has obviated the first justification, the second one remains. The US says it is running a kind of protection racket in the region, that its troops are there because North Korea is aggressive and dangerous. But the real reason for their presence is that the US wants to prevent China from becoming the regional hegemon. This was also the goal of Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement that included almost all of China’s regional economic rivals, from which Donald Trump withdrew the United States in January 2017. Obama was explicit about this: “We can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy,” he said in an official statement on the TPP. “We should write those rules.” The US is failing to achieve this goal. China has attained economic supremacy in the region, and with major projects like the Belt and Road Initiative, a set of planned infrastructure developments reaching across Asia and into Africa and Europe, it is on its way to doing so globally. But failure hasn’t been enough to bring home American troops in other parts of the world, and so far it hasn’t been enough in East Asia.
Liberal commentators have suggested that Trump and Kim’s rapport can be credited to the two leaders’ similarities: the fact that both are unstable megalomaniacs with bad haircuts and a grotesque flair for media spectacle. An extension of this idea is the notion that Trump was able to bring Kim to the negotiating table because he “speaks his language,” as though the problem with Obama’s sober diplomatic outreach was that it just didn’t resonate with a leader who, in the end, needed to hear the brutal rhetoric of nuclear annihilation. The similarities between the two men have been exaggerated, and the enormous differences in their political positions have been overlooked. Trump is the celebrity figurehead of a party that is fractured and weak, which only remains in power because the opposition is even weaker. He is neither the product of a political school of thought nor someone with political ideas of his own. He is a media personality whose shamelessness and aggression were perfectly suited to exploiting Republican and then Democratic weakness in 2016.
Kim is an authoritarian despot, but he is also the head of a dynastic line that has ruled North Korea without interruption since 1948. The legitimacy of his family’s rule derives from his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who founded the Down-with-Imperialism Union in 1926, opposed the nearly four-decade-long Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula as an effective Communist guerrilla leader, and was installed as the head of the Korean Communist Party by the Soviet Union in 1945. Kim’s fate is tied to that of the country he rules in a way that Trump’s is not, and the fall of Kim’s regime would usher in a transformative upheaval in North Korean politics and society. Trump, by contrast, is the product of an unfolding upheaval of American politics and society.
It’s in that light that Kim’s race to develop North Korea’s nuclear capabilities needs to be understood: the regime sees nuclear weapons as the only way to guarantee its survival. They have felt this way since at least January 29, 2002, when George W. Bush deemed North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, as part of an “axis of evil.” Fourteen months later, the US invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein’s government, and prominent Republicans spent the next decade publicly fantasizing about doing the same to Iran. Obama’s nuclear deal provided a reprieve for Ayatollah Khamenei, but then there was Muammar Gaddafi. In 2003, the Libyan dictator announced that he would have the country’s incipient nuclear weapons program dismantled, as part of an effort to normalize relations with the United States. That looked good for Gaddafi until 2011, when NATO took advantage of the Libyan civil war to have him overthrown. Then Trump took office and made it clear that the US would be pulling out of the Iran agreement before long. It would be hard to blame the Kim regime for deciding that the signals had become too obvious to ignore. In May 2017, North Korea conducted a test of its Hwasong-12 missile, prompting speculation in the American press that the country had developed the capability to strike the United States. On July 4, the Kim regime tested the Hwasong-14, a missile with a potential maximum range of about four thousand miles. Further tests followed in August and September, including one missile that passed over Hokkaido, Japan, prompting residents there to seek shelter. By the end of the year, North Korea had declared itself a full-fledged nuclear power.
Trump encouraged this escalation for months with warmongering speeches and tweets, bringing the world closer to nuclear war than it had been at any point since the Cuban missile crisis. He promised to rain down “fire and fury” on Kim’s regime, described military solutions as “locked and loaded,” and, in a speech given at the UN, threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. This was very dangerous, and also very stupid, because it was an obvious bluff. There could be no military solution to the Kim regime, no invasion of Pyongyang, no missile strike on Kim’s presidential palace, because any of that would quickly result in the deaths of tens of thousands in South Korea. Even according to the cold calculus of American geopolitics, Trump’s aggressiveness was destructive. American influence in East Asia is predicated on the idea that the US can protect Japan and South Korea by suppressing the belligerence of the North. But over the course of 2017, Trump did the opposite, theatrically upping the ante at every opportunity. The rest of the American government proved unable to rein him in.
As a result of Trump’s rhetoric, South Korea was forced to reconsider the amount of faith it felt able to put in US security guarantees. In late 2017, the author of a New York Times op-ed described a history lesson he’d received as a South Korean third grader in the late 1980s. “A teacher spent an entire class period telling us that the United States was deliberately keeping the Korean Peninsula divided so it could sell weapons to our country,” Se-Woong Koo wrote.
I repeated the story at home, and my mother and brother told me that my teacher must be a radical pro – North Korean sympathizer. I should know that the United States is our ally, they said, and that our real enemy is Kim Il-sung up north. Communists want to destroy us, and Americans were simply trying to protect us and our precious democracy.
I believed it then. But it now looks like America could bring our doom.
A protection racket doesn’t work if you can’t actually provide the protection.
With the US rendered ineffective, if not fully sidelined, by the unpredictability of its own head of state, North and South Korea took the initiative. South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who was elected in May 2017, is a progressive who had argued for peace negotiations with the North during his campaign. Moon, who was born in a refugee camp during the war after his parents fled the North, was symbolically well positioned to make this push. His predecessor, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, a conservative and five-term president of South Korea (he served from 1963 to 1979) who first came to power via military coup. The Parks are indelibly tied to the legacy of the Korean War, and so in 2016, when Geun-hye was impeached for influence peddling, Moon was able to present himself as someone who could offer a fresh start.
At the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeong-chang, North and South Korean athletes marched together under the “Korean Unification Flag” (a blue silhouette of the peninsula on a white background), and Kim’s sister Kim Yo-jong presented Moon with a letter from her brother, inviting him to a summit between the two heads of state. The leaders met two months later in the demilitarized zone, each stepping briefly across the military demarcation line while clasping hands (because there has been no peace treaty, the line is not an international border). This was the first time a North Korean head of state had set foot in South Korea since the country was divided. The summit’s end product was the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, in which both sides affirmed the goal of a “nuclear-free Korean Peninsula” and pledged to work toward a formal peace treaty by the end of 2018. The two leaders met again in September and rode together in an open-topped car through the streets of Pyongyang. They signed an agreement establishing a no-fly zone along the DMZ and mutually ending the military exercises there that have been a great source of tension between the two countries.
The American press has treated Moon with some condescension for his eagerness to meet and negotiate with Kim, and especially for suggesting that Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize (as though flattering someone who clearly values flattery and public acclaim more than anything else on Earth weren’t a wholly sensible move). Perhaps American pundits and reporters had mistaken American interests for South Korea’s. Moon’s peace efforts won him an approval rating of over 80 percent among South Koreans in the spring of 2018. (That figure has since dropped precipitously, but this is mostly due to the country’s struggling economy.) This may be hard to understand in light of Kim’s nuclear tests and the expansion of his arsenal, but those tests weren’t aimed at South Korea — they were aimed at the United States. The whole Korean peninsula is just a third bigger than Florida, and North Korea is one of the most militarized societies in the world, with nearly 1.2 million of its 25 million citizens serving in the armed forces. Kim does not need nuclear weapons to destroy Seoul. Conventional arms could cover the distance from North Korea to Seoul just fine. North Korea’s long-range ballistic missiles did, however, qualitatively change the threat Kim can pose to the United States.
But press condescension to Moon could not cover up just how bad the optics of the Kim-Moon summit were for American leadership in the region. Vice President Mike Pence had already embarrassed himself at the Pyeongchang Olympics, avoiding VIP dinners at which North Korean officials were in attendance and, at the opening ceremony, making a petulant show of ignoring Kim’s sister despite being seated directly in front of her. Now the US looked totally out of touch with events transpiring on the peninsula, and so when Moon emerged from the summit announcing that Kim wanted a meeting with Trump as well, Trump could hardly have refused without making the US materially less relevant to the unfolding diplomacy. All the while, Moon congratulated Trump on his “leadership,” understanding the need to manage and flatter the American President. Trump “deserves big credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks,” he said, presumably suppressing a smile. “It could be a resulting work of the US-led sanctions and pressure.”
The US is a necessary part of the peace process because only the US can give the Kim regime what it wants most: a guarantee that the US will stop working toward regime change in North Korea. North Korea’s official position is that it has pursued nuclear weapons out of fear of American aggression, and that it would be willing to abandon nuclear arms in exchange for American security guarantees. In the joint statement Trump and Kim signed at the end of their June summit in Singapore, Trump committed to providing exactly those security guarantees. The joint statement is not any kind of binding agreement, and it didn’t work out the details of anything. At the moment, America has not granted formal diplomatic recognition to North Korea as a state. It does not have an embassy in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (limited American consular functions in North Korea are performed by Sweden), nor does the DPRK have one in Washington. The furthest the US has gone is to acknowledge that the Kim regime currently governs the region of the Korean peninsula north of the demilitarized zone. Security guarantees are still a long way off, but they are the central issue, and the joint statement did not try to pretend otherwise.
Trump made another, even more meaningful gesture at the last minute, and appears not to have consulted with any of his advisers before deciding to make it. At a press conference conducted after his meeting with Kim, an ebullient Trump, doing his best to perform an awareness of the moment’s historical gravity, announced that he would be doing away with the war games the US had jointly conducted with South Korea for years. Halting the exercises, which typically involve more than twenty thousand US troops (plus three hundred thousand South Korean military), “will save us a tremendous amount of money,” Trump said. “Plus, I think it’s very provocative.” Trump said this last bit with the same air of bullshit insouciance that he brings to all of his public statements, but the words themselves were plain fact. The joint war games are rehearsals for the invasion of North Korea. North Koreans react to the war games just as Americans would if Canada and Russia annually sent bomber jets, aircraft carriers, and hundreds of thousands of troops to Nova Scotia, where they practiced invading Boston with live ammunition.
The American foreign policy establishment, which had been uncomfortable with the summit from the start, was furious about Trump suspending the war games. Democratic politicians interviewed around Capitol Hill sounded like Republicans talking about Obama’s Iran deal in 2015, chiding the President for failing to be tough on the dictator. “This was a big win for North Korea,” said Delaware senator Chris Coons, who, when asked to comment on the idea that the war games are threatening and provocative, said, “That’s the perspective of North Korea, not the perspective of the United States.” Apparently diplomacy should not involve considering and making concessions to the perspective of the other party. Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii criticized Trump for legitimizing Kim’s regime by meeting with him in the first place. On MSNBC, the avatar of liberalism Rachel Maddow spent the opening two minutes and fifty seconds of her show teeing up the revelation that North Korea shares an eleven-mile border with . . . Russia. Nearly twenty hallucinatory minutes later, she got to the point: “You know who else wants the US to stop its joint military exercises with South Korea?” She accused Trump of abandoning the exercises, “a pillar of [US] national security strategy,” to help Putin. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer joined in the criticism as well.
If the Democratic Party’s view of the summit was nearly unanimous, Republicans found themselves in a trickier political spot. Their reactions to an identical summit that featured Obama rather than Trump are easy to imagine, yet Trump’s media savvy and low-grade approximation of populism, along with his white-supremacist dog whistles, are all the party has holding it together. How to accommodate themselves to a diplomatic summit over which they likely would have started impeachment hearings had Obama been the one shaking hands with Kim in Singapore? They needed a win too badly to criticize what looked to be Trump’s first actual success since Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court, so they mostly held their tongues, aiming for quotes that could be forgotten as soon as they had been uttered. “Obviously, it’s the first step in what will be a long process in the coming months,” said Senator Tom Cotton. Perhaps the sharpest criticism came from Marco Rubio, who managed no better than a mildly worked-up tweet: “Should be skeptical of any deal with #KJU.” Lindsey Graham warned Trump that the details of any agreement would need to be approved by Congress, which barely qualified as a warning.
One factor that contributes to the GOP’s relative indifference to Trump’s impulsive and ego-driven diplomacy is declining interest in foreign policy within the Republican Party in general. The Tea Party insurgents who started taking over after Obama’s election are primarily motivated by domestic grievances, and the old grandees of conservative foreign policy — the Corkers and McCains — are dead, retiring, marginalized. A new generation of Republican ultrahawks — people like Rubio and Cotton — whose spectrum of opinion for diplomacy ranges from condescension to contempt, is now rising through the congressional ranks, but they have not yet taken hold of America’s foreign policy levers. This has given Trump significant leeway to improvise.
Democrats, meanwhile, remain fully inside the mainstream of American foreign policy thought. They believe in free trade, NATO, and the use of military force (or, at minimum, the presence of military forces) to maintain US supremacy around the globe. Their objections to the Korean peace process — which persist even though nearly 80 percent of South Koreans have said they trust Kim Jong-un to pursue reconciliation and denuclearization in good faith — may in part reveal a simple partisan desire to deny Trump a win, but they also speak to what the US imagines its purpose is in East and Southeast Asia. The question raised by Democratic skepticism is whether the US sees bringing the Korean War to a formal end as somehow not in its national interest.
Shortly before the Singapore summit, a group of seven Senate Democrats that included Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer sent a letter to President Trump outlining their conditions for viewing the summit as a success. It described the ultimate goal as the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” (the acronym, now in common use, is CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Relief of US economic sanctions on North Korea “should be dependent on dismantlement and removal,” the senators wrote, foreclosing the possibility of graduated, mutual gestures of good faith (i.e., some sanctions removed in exchange for the destruction of some particular missiles, and so on). Furthermore, having totally dismantled its weapons programs, North Korea must agree to “compliance regimes” permitting the inspection of both declared and undeclared but suspicious-looking sites by outside investigators, “anywhere, anytime.” Failure to comply would result in the immediate reinstatement of sanctions. Anything short of this, the senators wrote, “is a bad deal.”
This set of requirements is not a good starting point for anything trying to call itself a good-faith negotiation, and it is a lucky break that Trump didn’t take the Democrats’ advice heading into Singapore. CVID has become something of a rhetorical fetish in Washington. It was first coined by Bush Administration diplomats working with North Korea in 2003 and 2004, and it is just as untethered to reality as Bush-era diplomacy was in general. Some parts of the idea are simply confusing, such as the “irreversible” component. North Korea is already, right now, a nuclear power. Were it to dismantle every missile and test site and laboratory within its borders, it would still retain the technical knowledge to restart its nuclear program if it so desired. Are the scientists to be exiled from the country? Should their memories be wiped? Other aspects of CVID are simply not realistic. No sovereign nation would consent to “anytime, anywhere” inspections of its scientific and military facilities by representatives of a country with which it is still technically at war, especially not when such inspections could result in the automatic reimposition of economic sanctions that have turned North Korea into a pariah, dependent on Chinese trade for its economic subsistence. And North Korea was supposed to agree to all this, to ending the nuclear program that is its only piece of international leverage, before getting anything in return.
The diplomatic uselessness of these demands became apparent soon after the Singapore summit, when Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea to conduct preliminary negotiations with government officials. Pompeo returned to the US describing the talks as productive, but North Korean state media quickly released a statement throwing cold water on that idea. The line that got all the attention in the US was when North Korea insulted what it called America’s “gangster-like mind-set,” but the statement described the reasons for North Korea’s unhappiness pretty clearly. “We expected that the US would come with constructive measures that are conducive to building trust,” it read, “and we considered providing something that would correspond to them.” But instead of engaging in the “phased and synchronous approach” North Korea called for, US negotiators came with unilateral demands, and never even mentioned a treaty to bring the Korean War to a formal end. We don’t know what exactly transpired between Pompeo and the North Korean officials, but the secretary of state is a longtime Washington insider whose views have never significantly diverged from the US foreign policy mainstream. It is safe to assume that he proposed something like what the Democrats demanded Trump impose. The North Koreans went in looking for a negotiation. Instead, they got CVID. “Gangster-like” is colorful, but it’s also reasonably accurate.
The reason the US is acting more like an occupying military force than like a sovereign nation negotiating with peers is that the US is an occupying military force on the Korean peninsula, something American politicians and journalists have been careful to avoid mentioning in discussions of North Korea. It is a commonplace to say that Americans avoid public discussions of the Vietnam War, the country’s great 20th-century humiliation and the primary generational trauma of the boomers. But the war Americans actually never discuss, and about which younger Americans know nothing at all, is the Korean War. Hollywood never goes more than a few years without releasing a new movie centered on the Vietnam War, and Ken Burns’s fourteen-hour series on Vietnam was among the most discussed documentaries of 2017. Meanwhile, Hollywood has never produced an enduring pop-culture monument to the Korean War, except for one, Robert Altman’s 1970 film M*A*S*H*, which everyone knows is actually about Vietnam (a number of the male characters have shaggy hair, an obvious giveaway when distinguishing between a war fought in the late ’60s and one fought in the early ’50s).
Americans don’t like talking about Korea because Korea is like a Vietnam that America didn’t lose, yet things turned out badly anyway. In both Vietnam and Korea, the US intervened in a civil war to prevent indige-nous Communist forces from prevailing, as part of the policy of containment (the Korean War was the first conflict the US waged in the name of that doctrine). In both countries, it’s clear that the northern Communists would have won had the US decided not to intervene, and in Vietnam they won anyway. Recovering from the devastation of the war took many years, but today Vietnam, which remains a one-party republic, is doing well, driven by its quickly growing, socialist-oriented market economy with significant agricultural exports. Its population today is more than twice what it was in 1965, and its poverty rate is lower than America’s.
In Korea, however, America avoided defeat. The peninsula was first divided up in a panic at the end of World War II. Japan lost Korea, along with all of its other colonies, after its defeat at the hands of the Allies. Two days after the US dropped a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, and Stalin’s troops began to move quickly down the Korean peninsula. Perhaps worried that the Red Army would occupy the whole thing, US government officials, without consulting anyone from any other country, literally used a National Geographic map to decide on dividing the peninsula at the 38th parallel. Separate governments formed in each half of the country. The US organized elections for a legislature in 1948, and although the UN certified those elections as “free and fair,” the franchise was limited to landowners, taxpayers, and village elders. This arrangement satisfied nobody. Koreans did not want their civilization, which had existed for thousands of years, to be split in half. Political unrest and border conflict became more common in the latter half of the 1940s, and civil war decisively broke out on June 25, 1950. There is much arguing about whether the North invaded in a conquering spirit or because it was provoked, but it doesn’t matter. The political situation was intolerable, and the US had blocked all possible avenues to its resolution. The question would have to be decided by war.
And war would have answered the question, except for US intervention. Resistance in the South collapsed almost immediately. President Syngman Rhee, who had assumed rule of South Korea with General MacArthur at his side, fled the capital a few days later and ordered that his political opponents in the South be massacred following his departure. Some thirty-seven thousand North Korean troops captured Seoul. America’s first meaningful military engagement on the peninsula took place on July 5. What followed were six months of free-ranging, unpredictable conflict. By September 1950, North Korea controlled all but a small portion of the peninsula’s southeast corner. By October 1951, US, UN, and South Korean troops had pushed well north of the 38th parallel, and, newly confident, the US now believed it could not just contain but roll back Communism in Korea.1 China, however, intervened soon after the US crossed into the North, and shifting battle lines gradually stabilized around the middle of the peninsula. The presence of UN coalition forces constrained the Soviet Union from officially entering the war — Stalin could not afford to let the cold war turn hot. But the USSR was covertly involved throughout, supplying aid, guns, and fighter jets, along with Russian pilots to fly them (they flew under Chinese and North Korean markings). Two years of indecisive position warfare followed, during which time peace talks failed to reach a resolution. An armistice was finally signed on July 27, 1953.
Containment had worked. The US prevented the unification of the Korean peninsula under Communist rule. But the price of America’s success was enormous. Though US casualties did not approach the horrific numbers of the protracted war in Vietnam, more than thirty-six thousand Americans died in Korea, and a hundred thousand more were either wounded or MIA. South Korean casualties numbered somewhere around 1.5 million, and North Korea suffered more than 2 million casualties, as many as 1 million of whom were civilians. (These kinds of estimates are always contested and inexact.) The loss of life was accompanied by an American air war that devastated North Korea and that still lives on bitterly in the memories of those who experienced it and their descendants. Extending the application of what they learned firebombing the Germans and the Japanese in World War II, American forces essentially carpet-bombed North Korea for three years, ultimately dropping more than six hundred thousand tons of ordnance. North Korea’s air defenses basically didn’t exist. “We burned down every town in North Korea and South Korea,” said US Air Force general Curtis LeMay. A Hungarian writer who visited North Korea in 1951 described the results:
There was only devastation . . . every city was a collection of chimneys. I don’t know why houses collapsed and chimneys did not, but I went through a city of 200,000 inhabitants and I saw thousands of chimneys and that — that was all.
By the spring of 1953, the US had already bombed every major population center in the North — now American bombers began to target dams. Thousands of acres of farmland were destroyed, and it was only emergency assistance from other socialist countries that averted a major famine.
With the help of other countries in the Communist bloc, North Korea rebuilt quickly after the war. But the fall of the Soviet Union and the breakup of the Soviet states deprived it of access to its key trading partners, and a series of natural disasters, including drought and flooding, caused a famine that lasted from 1994 to 1998. Estimates as to the number of deaths vary widely, ranging from roughly a quarter of a million to as high as three million people. The effects of the natural disasters were exacerbated by human failures of policy and economic planning; fuel shortages meant that food could not be moved around the country to areas that needed it. North Korea has functioned since then as a garrison state — hypermilitarized, economically backward, shut out of world diplomacy, and treated with contempt by every relevant power except for China, which mostly trades with Pyongyang to stave off a refugee crisis along the 880-mile border the two countries share.
It does not absolve North Korean leaders of their own responsibility to describe this situation as the legacy of American success on the Korean peninsula. North Korea is the primary locus of regional instability in East Asia, and its current condition is an indictment of America’s contributions to that part of the world over the last seventy years. The last best chance the US had to improve relations with North Korea came in 1993, when, in an effort to de-escalate a crisis developing over North Korean preparations to reprocess fuel rods used for nuclear power into weapons-grade plutonium, Bill Clinton sent former President Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Il-sung. In 1994, the two negotiated an agreement, which called for US sanctions relief and aid in exchange for North Korea shutting down its weapons program. Later that year, Republicans took over Congress, delayed aid deliveries, and refused to lift sanctions, and the deal slowly fell apart, with North Korea restarting its weapons program in 1998. When George W. Bush named North Korea part of the “axis of evil” in 2002, he hoped that a punishing sanctions regime would weaken and eventually topple Kim. This was the same line of thinking that motivated US sanctions in Iraq throughout the ’90s, and in both cases it had the opposite of the intended effect. US leaders fantasized that “ordinary” Iraqis/North Koreans would rise up and overthrow the leaders who had brought sanctions down upon them, but instead Saddam and Kim were able to accurately blame their respective countries’ dire economic straits on the United States. The only effect sanctions had on ordinary North Koreans was to further demoralize them. Obama spent eight years pursuing a policy of gradual sanctions escalation, which his administration called “strategic patience.” Essentially, he left the status quo in place for his successor, who he assumed would be Hillary Clinton, to address.
North and South Korea understand that America’s presence in the region is a boot placed on the necks of the countries it deals with.Tweet
America’s presence in East Asia is one that clearly emerges as imperial once you take a look at the details. For example, not only does America keep nearly forty thousand troops based in Japan, but Japan pays for around 80 percent of America’s basing costs. Another fact that brings the situation into sharp relief is that in wartime, the US military assumes operational control of South Korean military forces. Should war break out on the peninsula, it would be American generals deciding where and when and how many South Korean soldiers would die. South Korean liberals have long agitated for the return of wartime military control to South Korea, and late last year, as the Trump-Kim rhetoric was escalating, Moon Jae-in gave a speech in which he said that “retrieving wartime operational control will boost military development and place South Korea at the center of East Asian security, based on independent defense capabilities.” It is not a coincidence that Moon made this argument at the same time as he was preparing a thaw in relations between North and South Korea. Both countries understand that America’s presence in the region is a boot placed on the necks of the countries it deals with — the pressure placed on South Korea’s neck may be lighter, but it is still the same boot.
This fact is coming into clearer view as South Korean progress with North Korea begins to outpace that made so far by the US. According to anonymous officials within the Trump Administration, Seoul has let the US know that they see the nuclear issue as essentially between North Korea and the US alone, and that it intends to press on and deepen its engagement whether or not Trump and Kim are able to make more concrete progress. “We have a big problem coming with South Korea,” one official told a reporter from Tokyo Business Today. “They no longer feel the need to act in parallel with us.” Other officials have even suggested — ludicrously, one hopes — that the US would consider sanctioning South Korea were Moon to make too much headway and expose the US as the really intransigent party in the process.
North Korea’s isolation and belligerence (the latter born of the former) strengthen America’s hand in East Asia, providing a convenient justification for the basing of tens of thousands of US troops in the region, troops that also serve as a useful check on China’s ambitions. This may explain why the American foreign policy establishment today is the biggest single impediment to the peace process on the Korean peninsula, a process the Kim regime desperately wants to succeed and that four out of five South Koreans support. In strict geopolitical terms, the US is correct to throw roadblocks in the way of Kim and Moon. A final resolution of the Korean War would permanently dampen American influence in that region of the world. Peace isn’t in America’s interest — or at least it wasn’t until Kim developed the capacity to strike the US mainland with ballistic missiles.
In the American press, an inability to acknowledge the opposition between America’s interests and those of the countries it dominates has made basic components of the peace process hard to understand. Kim claims to want the denuclearization of the peninsula, commentators say — but then he drags his feet! He must not want denuclearization at all. But when the Kim regime calls for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, they’re talking about all of the nuclear weapons aimed at the peninsula, including those that belong to America. America’s “nuclear umbrella” currently covers Japan and the Korean peninsula. Asking both parties in a denuclearization negotiation to participate in the denuclearizing seems reasonable, especially given one party’s history of actually using nuclear weapons, not to mention that the US became the first country to violate the 1953 armistice when, in 1958, the Eisenhower Administration began sending tactical nuclear weapons, including artillery shells, surface-to-air rockets, and land mines, into South Korea. But as recently as May 2018, the Pentagon’s assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security described the nuclear umbrella as nonnegotiable. If America’s desire for denuclearization is sincere, the process will have to be mutual in some respects.
When all else fails, hand-wringing about Kim’s international legitimacy serves as a useful refuge for America’s foreign policy hawks. Democrats and liberals voiced this complaint en masse in the wake of the Singapore summit. “It sure looks as if President Trump was hoodwinked in Singapore,” Nicholas Kristof wrote in the Times, arguing that Trump got almost nothing in exchange for his many concessions, of which “legitimacy” for Kim Jong-un was one. Just the fact of Trump’s agreeing to meet with Kim, Chuck Schumer said, “granted a brutal and repressive dictatorship the international legitimacy it has long craved.” This is a common rhetorical move within the US foreign policy establishment, which is always worrying about dispensing some of its storehouse of legitimacy to the wrong foreign head of state. But it’s a bad concern to bring to a peace process, because a successful Korean peace process would necessarily increase Kim’s international standing and help usher North Korea into the community of nations. Increasing Kim’s legitimacy is the goal.
As a citizen, it’s reasonable to feel uncomfortable about the prospect of the US boosting Kim’s international standing. His family’s regime is one of the most repressive and authoritarian in the world. Some one hundred and twenty thousand inmates endure awful conditions in the country’s political prisons. Political discipline is maintained via state-controlled media and public executions. Populations are forcibly relocated from one part of the country to another, and travel within or out of the country requires government permission, which is usually denied. North Korea’s human rights record is about as bad as it gets. And yet, even if the American foreign policy establishment’s expressions of squeamishness on this front were sincere — and our cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia, another country in which torture and public executions are common, demonstrates conclusively that they are not — they would be misplaced. Kim is the legitimate ruler of North Korea — it’s hard to imagine someone more legitimate than the grandson of the founder of the country and member of the ruling family — and America is stuck with him. Sanctions and isolation cannot weaken his regime to the point of collapse. All they can do, all that they have done, is push Kim toward further extremes of repression and make life harder for the people who live under his rule. War with North Korea is unthinkable. It presents all of the drawbacks of invading Iraq (the political vacuum in the wake of the dictator’s collapse, the regional spread of the conflict, the certainty of a refugee crisis), plus nuclear weapons. It is also a political impossibility within the United States; there’s no September 11 lying around to serve as a flimsy pretext for invading. A peace treaty ending the Korean War, mutual denuclearization of the peninsula by North Korea and the US, and diplomatic recognition for North Korea as a nation-state is the only viable option, not to mention the only option that presents a realistic prospect of improving the daily lives of North Koreans. One way or another, America’s cold-war adventure in the Pacific is coming to an end. North and South Korea have presented the US with an opportunity to negotiate that adventure’s protracted conclusion in a dignified way. They’ve done so despite America’s long (and still lengthening) record of military aggression, torture, diplomatic bad faith, covert activity, and deal breaking. The US should recognize this generous offer for what it is and accept it.
The Korean War was the UN’s first global test, a chance for the institution to prove that it really could mobilize an international coalition in the service of peacekeeping. But, as would become a pattern throughout the second half of the 20th century, the UN’s true role may have been to lend a stamp of international credibility to military action that the organization’s dominant member state, the United States, was going to undertake anyway. When North Korea crossed the 38th parallel, UN Security Council Resolution 84 declared it a breach of the peace and encouraged its members to send troops to South Korea’s defense. The Soviet Union could have exercised its veto power on the Security Council, but it was boycotting the UN at the time over its refusal to recognize Mao’s Communist government of China. President Truman never asked Congress to pass an official declaration of war on North Korea — he argued that UNSCR 84 was enough. Troops sent to North Korea by UN member states, including the UK, Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Colombia, Ethiopia, South Africa, New Zealand, Turkey, Greece, Thailand, Luxembourg, Australia and the Philippines, were all placed under US command. ↩