Articles Featured Korea

Time to Rethink the US-ROK Alliance

North Korea has blown up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong. It is threatening an all-out pamphlet war in response to defectors sending anti-regime propaganda to the north. South Korea’s unification minister has stepped down after failing to meet with his North Korean counterparts during his 14-month tenure.

Pyongyang is not happy about the balloons launched by defectors carrying leaflets and dollar bills. But the real problem is that North Korea remains heavily sanctioned and South Korea has been unable or unwilling to alleviate that situation.

Meanwhile, South Korea is being pressured from the other side. The Trump administration has pushed hard for Seoul to pay more for the maintenance of U.S. bases and troops in the country: a preposterous increase from $900 million to $5 billion. South Korea countered with a 13 percent increase that Washington rejected. Only 4 percent of South Koreans believe that their country should accept the U.S. demand.

On top of that, the United States has refused to provide much if any wiggle room for South Korea to pursue economic projects with North Korea. Even as Trump attempted to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the United States maintained strict sanctions on the country.

It is very frustrating to be the object of geopolitics rather than the subject. South Korea is a weak geopolitical actor because other countries, primarily the United States and North Korea, are determining the conditions within which Seoul is operating.

President Moon Jae-in has tried to turn lemons into lemonade by presenting himself as the great conciliator. He pulled off three meetings with Kim Jong Un in 2018, two at the DMZ and one in Pyongyang, and breathed new life into inter-Korean relations. He managed to preserve a working relationship with Donald Trump, largely through flattery. Early on, he mended fences with China over the THAAD dispute. Moon did a brilliant job given the circumstances.

Much of that strategy now lies in tatters, blown up like the liaison office in Kaesong.

Some in Seoul are no doubt advising Moon to adopt a posture of “strategic patience” toward the United States. In November, American voters may well remove Trump from office, and then South Korea can negotiate with the more pragmatic and predictable Joe Biden.

But Biden’s predictability will pose an equally frustrating challenge. A Biden administration will probably accept Seoul’s offer of a modest increase in host nation support. But Biden will not likely offer a new approach to North Korea. Expect yet another strategic review of U.S. policy, followed by a continuation of the status quo: maximum pressure on Pyongyang, short of war, until it adopts a more conciliatory negotiating position. South Korea’s role as a passive actor in this drama will not change.

Perhaps it’s time for South Korea, then, to assert more independence and become a master of its own fate. Above all, that will require a reconsideration of the military alliance with the United States.

From a military point of view, South Korea doesn’t need the presence of U.S. troops on the peninsula. They serve a largely symbolic function as a concrete sign of U.S. commitment. At some point, after the resolution of ongoing negotiations, South Korea will assume full operational control of military forces. After years of arms imports, South Korea’s hardware advantage gives it a vast military superiority over the North.

The United States has been an obstacle in the way of improving inter-Korean relations. And it has forced a partnership with Tokyo that Seoul finds uncomfortable. On top of that, South Korea periodically worries that it will be drawn into the conflict between Washington and Beijing.

A cost-benefit analysis of the U.S.-South Korean alliance suggests that it no longer serves Seoul’s interests as it once might have.

Meanwhile, the United States is engaged in its own assessment of the benefits of that relationship. Under Trump, the United States has called into question virtually all of its military alliances. The burden-sharing that Trump is attempting to force on NATO, on Japan, and on South Korea is only an extreme version of what the foreign policy elite in Washington has demanded for years.

Biden is expected to take a more supportive position toward these military alliances. But the economic challenges posed by the coronavirus as well as the longer-term erosion of U.S. geopolitical influence mean that the United States will likely continue Trump’s cost-cutting approach but in more polite terms and according to a different timeline.

Instead of passively watching this process unfold, South Korea should get ahead of the curve. It should begin asserting its independence from the United States. It should prepare for the time when the two countries have a normal relationship rather than a “special” relationship.

It has been 70 years since the Korean War and the division of the peninsula. Overcoming that division, ultimately, will require altering South Korea’s relationship with the United States. The question that remains: will it be South Korea or the United States that takes the lead in changing the relationship?

By respectfully taking the initiative, South Korea can become a full-fledged actor in geopolitics. It can thank the United States for all of the help provided over the years (and hold its tongue about the unsavory aspects of the alliance like the prostitution around military bases). It can hold a party for the departing U.S. troops. And it can then set about re-imagining the North East Asian region with a unified peninsula at its heart.

Hankyoreh, June 29, 2020

Articles Asia Featured

Coronavirus: Cooperation vs. Quarantine

Pathogens don’t know anything about borders. They don’t care about history or ethnicity. They are interested in just one thing: reproduction.  They are constantly in search of places where they can be fruitful and multiply.

Trade and war have been the great facilitators of the plagues that have periodically decimated the human race. Soldiers and merchants, by traveling from place to place, helped spread the Black Death in the fourteenth century and the Spanish flu in the twentieth century, both of which killed about 50 million people.

The latest pandemic, the coronavirus, is no different. People traveling on business in and out of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and the epicenter of the outbreak in China, gave the pathogen new hosts to infect. The commerce of tourism also helped out, as the coronavirus has taken advantage of close quarters on cruise ships and airplanes to jump from body to body.

More than 100,000 people around the world so far have been infected. That includes tens of thousands of people in China, thousands of people in South Korea, and hundreds of people in Japan.

One immediate response to the latest epidemic has been to shut down sites of infection. To start off, the Chinese government locked down Hubei, a province of nearly 60 million people. Traffic in and out of the province has effectively ended, and residents are still confined to their homes. The rate of infection in Hubei and throughout China has dropped considerably as a result.

The Italian government has followed suit. It began by imposing a travel ban on its northern provinces.

Some medical professionals have praised this quarantine approach, arguing that the Chinese government slowed the spread of the disease and gave other countries more time to prepare for the inevitable. But epidemiologists are also skeptical whether such an approach is ultimately effective since another outbreak could take place once travel resumes and infected people reintroduce the virus to areas that had (temporarily) eradicated the disease.

Also, it’s not easy for quarantines to work in democratic countries. The quarantine in Italy is not as tight as the one in Hubei. People fled Milan and other places in the northern regions as soon as the new measures were announced, and many residents were still going out into public even as the government pleaded with them to stay home. The Italian government has subsequently imposed the ban on the entire country, severely restricting movement around the country and closing schools as well.

In this age of rekindled nationalism, leaders have called for tougher border controls – this time not just against immigrants but against anyone traveling from countries with high infection rates, like Italy and Iran. The Trump administration, for instance, implemented a 30-day travel ban on anyone coming from continental Europe, creating chaos for Americans caught there for business or on vacation.

Japan, meanwhile, has pledged to put anyone coming from South Korea or China into a two-week quarantine. It’s one of dozens of countries that have imposed such restrictions. Mongolia and Turkey, for instance, won’t even allow in people who have recently been in or transited through South Korea. But the South Korean government has singled out the Abe government for criticism and also eliminated visa waivers for Japanese visitors.

Shutting down cities and closing borders seem to be plausible responses to a crisis that is amplified by travelers and border crossers. But ultimately such measures provide a false sense of security, particularly when it comes to a pathogen like the coronavirus.

First of all, it looks as though the coronavirus is turning out to be only a little more lethal than a bad influenza virus. The large majority of those infected experience only mild symptoms. And some victims of the disease pass on the infection when they’re still asymptomatic. That means that the coronavirus spreads far more easily than more lethal diseases like Ebola, where there’s no evidence that the asymptomatic infect other people.

With diseases like the coronavirus, unless it is contained immediately at its source, the best that can be hoped for is mitigation. That means ensuring that at-risk populations – the elderly, those with underlying conditions – avoid contact with the general population. It means more aggressive screening, as South Korea has instituted, and aggressive isolation of those infected. It means targeting resources at those hospitalized with more severe symptoms.

It also means that increasing cross-border cooperation, rather than shutting it down, is the key to addressing the problem. In the absence of a robust, global response to pandemics – and such a response is unlikely given opposition from leaders like Trump – countries must push for regional coordination.

The coronavirus is a test run for this kind of cooperation. The next pandemic might be more lethal, might spread more quickly, and might be able to mutate into something even deadlier.

Japan, South Korea, China, and North Korea have myriad disagreements about borders, history, trade, and security. The coronavirus couldn’t care less. It has created its own regional alliance that speaks only one language: the language of infection.

The countries of Northeast Asia should take this opportunity to create a regional scientific consortium, a regional transportation authority, a regional medical response team, and a regional fund to help less affluent areas deal with disease.

Such cooperation, ideally, would extend to other pressing matters: climate change, sustainable energy, and arms control. But let’s start with something basic, like pooling knowledge about the coronavirus, its effects, and its weaknesses.

Regional cooperation requires a common enemy. Such an enemy mobilized its troops in Wuhan and has now invaded every country in the region. It’s time for South Korea, Japan, North Korea, and China to put aside their historical and territorial differences and fight this enemy together.

Hankyoreh, March 15, 2020

Articles Featured Korea US Domestic Policy

Impeachment’s Effect on Trump’s Foreign Policy

Donald Trump is now the subject of an impeachment inquiry in the U.S. Congress. He has committed a range of potentially impeachable offenses. But the Democrats have decided to focus the impeachment investigation on one aspect of the president’s foreign policy. Trump tried to persuade a foreign government, Ukraine, to dig up evidence of corruption connected to one of his Democratic challengers, Joe Biden. This is a direct violation of campaign finance laws.

Trump has not tried to deny his actions. He released a partial transcript of his phone call with the Ukrainian president, which he continually described as “perfect” even though it provided sufficient evidence of his wrongdoing to warrant an investigation. The very next week, Trump turned around and asked China to also help in investigating Biden and his son Hunter. And instead of following the rule of law and cooperating with Congress, Trump has instructed everyone in the administration to refuse to testify and ignore any subpoenas. This is a clear case of obstruction.

So, Trump is not letting the impeachment inquiry alter his approach to foreign policy. He has continued his highly personalistic approach of reaching out to leaders and making the deals that best help not the United States or U.S. allies but Trump’s own political and economic standing. He continues to focus on using his foreign connections to improve his chances in the 2020 elections. He still hopes to get a Nobel Peace Prize for a successful deal (for instance, with North Korea). And he is still making baffling decisions in an effort to keep favored autocrats on his side.

Consider his recent phone call with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Against the advice of many in his administration, Trump agreed to withdraw U.S. military personnel in northern Syria and effectively gave Turkey the green light to launch cross-border attacks on Syrian Kurds. Even Trump’s Republican Party supporters in Congress were aghast at the president’s willingness to abandon the Kurds, a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State.

Why does Trump do what Erdogan wants him to do? In addition to wanting to avoid a conflict with a NATO ally, Trump argues for ending U.S. wars and bringing U.S. soldiers home. That is certainly popular among U.S. voters these days. But then, shortly after the announced withdrawal from Syria, Trump authorized the deployment of an additional 2,000 troops to Saudi Arabia (on top of the 1,000 troops sent earlier in October). In fact, the Trump administration has deployed 14,000 additional U.S. troops to the Middle East since the spring. Compare that with the 1,000 troops that Trump is withdrawing from northern Syria.

Taken together, Trump’s moves provide more evidence that his foreign policy is focused on rolling back Iran’s influence. Saudi Arabia is Iran’s chief adversary in the region, and the two countries are fighting what amounts to a proxy war in Yemen. Trump might see Turkey, predominantly Sunni, as a potential ally against Iran, although Ankara and Tehran have increased their cooperation in recent years.

Before the impeachment scandal broke, Trump seemed to be exploring ways of resolving various disputes with Iran – for instance, through the good offices of Pakistani leader Imran Khan. But bringing the regime in Tehran to heel has been a more consistent obsession of Trump’s.

Perhaps the president is figuring that whichever way the Iran crisis goes, it will distract attention from the impeachment hearings. If Trump manages to resolve tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, then he can present himself as an indispensable peacemaker – and make the case that Congress should stop its impeachment “witch hunt” for national security reasons. If all attempts at peacemaking fail, Trump can lead the country into a war with Iran – and rely on the rally-around-the-flag effect to bolster his reelection prospects.

For the time being, Trump is emphasizing his capabilities as a dealmaker. “We have a lot of countries in a very good position right now, despite the ‘witch hunt,’ which hurts our country and it hurts America,” he has said. “But Iran wants to do something. North Korea wants to do something, and China would like to do something.”

Foreign policy has gotten the president into hot water. Now he is emphasizing that foreign policy will save his presidency. But it’s not clear whether other countries will cooperate.

Trump has been continually promising a trade deal with China. A partial agreement is now in place that suspends a U.S. tariff hike in exchange for Beijing buying some more U.S. agricultural products and promising to address issues of intellectual property rights. China knows that the U.S. president is increasingly desperate to show some sign of progress in trade negotiations – to calm the U.S. stock market and strengthen his claim that U.S. economic health depends on his presence in the White House. But Beijing also knows that impeachment and the 2020 elections increase its leverage. So, it’s not going to agree to just anything.

North Korea is also not willing to accept any old deal from the United States. In Stockholm, North Korean representatives expressed frustration at the U.S. negotiating position. The Trump administration has reportedly offered the lifting of sanctions on coal and textile exports in exchange for closing down Yongbyon and halting the production of highly enriched uranium. Although such an offer departs from Washington’s previous all-or-nothing approach, North Korea is likely looking for more substantial changes in the sanctions regime. In the meantime, Pyongyang has been testing short-range missiles and a new submarine-capable missile.

Trump knows that any sign of weakness is like blood in the water for the sharks of the international community. Foreign leaders will try to take advantage of that weakness, as Erdogan has apparently already done. As the impeachment inquiry gathers force, the U.S. president will be sorely tempted to demonstrate that he is not weak – by dispatching U.S. military forces, taking a hard line in trade negotiations, and continuing to put heavy demands on allies.

Trump’s impulsiveness is already becoming more pronounced. If he was an unpredictable president before the impeachment hearings began, he has become only more erratic. The bumpy road of U.S. foreign policy is about to get even bumpier.

Hankyoreh, October 12, 2019

Articles Asia Featured

The Collapse of the East Asian Order

The United States is losing its status as a Pacific power. It can no longer control developments in East Asia. It still maintains a large military footprint in the region. But that military presence no longer translates into an ability to achieve the outcomes that Washington wants.

For better or worse, the post-World War II order in East Asia is coming to an end.

China has become the dominant economic player in East Asia, and it’s acquiring a military commensurate with its economic strength. Japan has been breaking out of the restraints of its “peace constitution” to build up its own military power. South Korea recently canceled its intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, a cornerstone of the trilateral cooperation that Washington has urged on its two East Asian allies.

In a last-ditch effort, the Obama administration tried with its much-hyped Pacific pivot to reinsert the United States into the economic and security environment of East Asia. But the pivot didn’t happen. The U.S. military remained enmeshed in the conflicts of the greater Middle East. And the Trump administration immediately canceled U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free-trade agreement that was supposed to hitch the United States to the powerful economies of the east.

Donald Trump has further hastened the end of the post-war order with his pursuit of three primary goals in East Asia. He initiated a trade war with China to force the country to accede to U.S. demands regarding market access and other features of the Chinese economy. Beijing has not backed down.

Trump’s second imperative is to press U.S. allies to pay more for hosting U.S. troops. In early 2019, the United States and South Korea signed a one-year agreement – rather than the usual five-year agreement – in which Seoul agreed to raise its contribution by around 8 percent.  Last month, a new round of negotiations began. On his visit to Korea in August, National Security Advisor John Bolton reportedly demanded that Korea up its contributions to an astonishing $5 billion a year, a quintupling of the current amount.

Meanwhile, Trump is pushing the Abe government to increase military spending, in part to pay more for U.S. troops at bases in Japan but also for Tokyo to buy even more high-priced U.S. weapons.

Finally, Trump wants a deal with North Korea. But such a deal is not connected to any larger East Asian purpose. Trump simply wants to demonstrate that he can achieve something that his predecessors couldn’t.

None of these goals – confronting China, more allied burdensharing, a deal with North Korea – is new. All three policies have roots that go back to the 1990s. But Trump is taking more risks to achieve these goals. He is also paying little attention to the potentially high price of his actions.

The economic relationship between Beijing and Washington, for instance, may not recover, as China looks for other sources of key imports like soybeans and other markets for its exports. South Korea is not happy about the increased monetary demands from the United States. One recent sign of that unhappiness was the Blue House’s desire to expedite the return of 26 U.S. military bases to Korea.

And Trump’s on-again, off-again approach to North Korea has also complicated relations between Washington and Seoul. The cancellation of joint exercises has reduced military cooperation while the lack of sanctions relief for Pyongyang has blocked greater economic cooperation between north and south.

The United States always billed itself as a stabilizing influence in East Asia. In a region beset by longstanding rivalries, the United States intended to contain Japan by restricting it to a largely defensive military posture. Washington also worked hard to align the policies of Japan and South Korea, despite the unresolved territorial and historical disputes between the two countries. The U.S. military presence in the region was designed to prevent the rise of another hegemon.

The U.S. military remains in the region, but it no longer fulfills those goals. So, for instance, a

full-blown arms race is taking place in the region. Xi Jinping, determined to build a world-class military, will increase Chinese military spending by 7.5 percent next year. Combined with close trade relationships with the region, this improved military capacity means that China has emerged as precisely the hegemonic power that U.S. policy was intended to prevent.

Meanwhile, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, South Korea is now the tenth biggest military spender in the world, with Japan at number nine and China number two. Under Moon Jae-in, an otherwise progressive leader, South Korea increased its military budget by 8.2 percent in 2019, the largest increase since 2008, and plans increases of over 7 percent for 2020-2024.

Under Shinzo Abe, Japanese military spending has increased by 13 percent since 2013. With the military budget likely to set a new record next year, Japan is devoting a huge chunk of expenditures on U.S. weapons systems, like six new F35b, which each costs more than $130 million.

The United States, too, is increasing its military budget. But Trump seems determined to draw down U.S. forces overseas. The current burdensharing disputes may lead to a reduction of U.S. forces in Japan and South Korea.

True, the East Asian order that the United States helped build after World War II was not peaceful. It was founded on two wars – the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It relied on hundreds of military bases that increased the amount of violence in the host communities. It maintained a Cold War divide that is still strong and still justifies enormous outlays on the military.

But this order, for all of its obvious flaws, managed to keep a lid on the worst excesses of nationalism (just as the internationalist Communist order attempted to do the same on the other side of the Cold War divide).

The waning of U.S. influence in the region coincides with a powerful resurgence in nationalism. The most obvious example is Japan, where what had once been extremist views on Japan’s wartime conduct are now, thanks to Shinzo Abe, in the very mainstream. China, too, has become a much more explicitly nationalist country under Xi Jinping. South Korean nationalism has largely been subsumed under the project of reunification. A case in point is Moon Jae-in’s assertion last month that a united North and South Korean economy could leapfrog over Japan in “one burst.”

Donald Trump’s “America first” policies are perhaps the most explicitly nationalistic of them all. There wasn’t much any president could do to prevent the loss of U.S. power in the Pacific. But Trump’s approach has kindled nationalism and accelerated the arms race in the region.

As with Europe, U.S. withdrawal from Asia could have been accompanied by a strengthening of regional institutions of peace and cooperation. Instead, the collapse of the East Asian order has generated increased rivalry and conflict. Europe has largely transcended its twentieth-century history of war. Thanks in part to the short-sighted policies of the United States, East Asia is on the verge of repeating some very unfortunate history.

Hankyoreh, September 15, 2019

Articles Featured Korea

North Korea’s Momentous Transition

North Korea belongs to a dwindling category of countries known as “totalitarian.” Compared to their authoritarian cousins, totalitarian regimes aspire to control all aspects of society. As Italian fascist Benito Mussolini once put it: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” In such countries, there is no autonomous business sector or civil society of any sort. Churches and other religious institutions are purely ornamental. Indeed, such countries lack even a handful of independent intellectuals. Totalitarian governments aspire to eliminate all individualism in their construction of a state that is all-powerful and a society that behaves like a single organism.

North Korea came into existence after the end of World War II when the United States and Soviet Union arbitrarily divided the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel. There have been only three leaders of the country, all part of the same bloodline. Kim Il Sung, the founding head of state, established the pattern of North Korean politics by fusing Soviet-style communism with older feudal and Confucian traditions. He ruthlessly eliminated all potential opposition to his rule as well as any factionalism within the Workers’ Party. He created a personality cult that could channel the religious devotion that had been widespread in northern Korea prior to World War II. He subordinated all social life to the Party, established a prison camp system for those who fell afoul of the Party’s dictums, and carefully restricted the flow of information into the country. Although charting an independent course between Moscow and Beijing, the new country would nevertheless benefit from the economic subsidies and political patronage of both China and the Soviet Union.

North Korea has also survived innumerable challenges. It eked out a stalemate in the Korean War only thanks to a million Chinese “volunteers” who entered the war several months after it began in 1950. The country didn’t collapse when Eastern European communism went under in 1989, or when the Soviet Union passed away two years later. It survived the death of its first leader in 1994, and a subsequent famine that killed as much as 10 percent of the population. And even though its current leader, Kim Il Sung’s grandson Kim Jong Un, was a mere 24 years old when he took over in 2014, North Korea has made it through its third leadership transition.

Despite its reputation for stasis, North Korea has in fact changed a great deal over the years in order to survive these myriad challenges. Perhaps the most critical transformation has involved the market. Even before the famine hit in the mid-1990s, the government established the free-trade zone of Rajin-Sonbong in order to interact more effectively with global capitalism. When the official economy collapsed during the famine years, the government permitted local markets to expand and become an indispensable source of food and income for the population. When the economic crisis subsided in the 2000s, outside experts provided the government with the technical know-how to create the legal framework to support foreign capital investment.

Since the 1990s, an entrepreneurial class has emerged in North Korea. Some members of this class accumulated capital from running import-export businesses with China. Others used their state connections to start up quasi-independent enterprises and non-state services such as the informal “service cars” that operate like private taxis. New semi-private restaurants and cafes have appeared in the major cities. There is even a secondary market in apartments.

This new moneyed elite is known as donju, or “masters of money.” They can exist only through some accommodation with the state – chiefly through bribery. In her new book on Kim Jong Un, Washington Post journalist Anna Fifield describes one such sleigh-of-hand:

“A master of money might buy mining and mineral rights from the central government authorities and then take over mines that have been abandoned because of a lack of electricity and the equipment needed to bring out the minerals. They invest in the mine to get it up and running again. They hire workers who, unlike when working for the state, will receive a decent wage. They pay off ministry officials and buy protection from local party cadres and officials in the prosecutor’s office. Then they take in the cash and pay a share of their profits – about 30 percent – to the regime as ‘loyalty funds.’”

Until recently, North Korea attempted to incorporate elements of capitalism into its totalitarian model. This uneasy marriage produced periodic crackdowns as the state attempted to re-exert control over the economic sphere. The police would break up informal markets. Successful entrepreneurs risked imprisonment. At the end of 2009, the government revalued the currency, limiting the amount of old money that citizens could trade for new. The move wiped out the savings of many small-scale entrepreneurs.

Kim Jong Un, however, has adopted a different approach. As long as the members of this new economic elite grease the right palms, they can enjoy the fruits of their labor. They can even flaunt their new wealth at expensive stores and cafes in Pyongyang. In this way, North Korea has followed the Chinese economic reform path that Deng Xiaoping famously described as: “to get rich is glorious.”

The shift in approach is potentially momentous. A government that previously aspired to totalitarian control of the population is shifting to mere authoritarianism. The state has not dismantled any of its surveillance mechanisms. It still maintains its robust propaganda machinery as well as a personality cult for its young leader. It continues to show zero tolerance for dissent of any kind. But, like more ordinary autocratic states, it is permitting a somewhat more independent economic class to emerge.

These masters of money are still dependent on the state. Indeed, it could be argued that Kim Jong Un has encouraged the growth of this class as a way to build a new base of support for his leadership.

But the transition from totalitarian to authoritarian is not merely terminological. A new space has opened up in North Korean society that is free of absolute government control. In the short term, the allegiance of the new class will not shift away from the government. But over time, particularly as this class grows in numbers and strength, it may well seek political power commensurate with its economic power (as the classic texts on the sources of revolution predict).

In addition, this new class is more cosmopolitan in perspective. Its members wear Chinese fashions, are knowledgeable about South Korean culture, and are even familiar with some trends in Europe and America. The influence of this new cosmopolitanism is difficult to calculate, but it could help pave the way for North Korea to join the global economy with greater ease. This class can serve as the hyphen that connects North Korea to the world.

An authoritarian North Korea is, so far, just as brutal as the totalitarian one. The human rights situation in the country hasn’t improved appreciably. But there is a possibility, particularly if Washington and Seoul succeed in engaging more substantively with Pyongyang, that the country will open up by degrees. In this way, authoritarianism will prove to be a transitional stage between totalitarianism and a more open society.

Shuddhashar, August 1, 2019


Next Stop: North Korea





Next Stop: North Korea

Written and Performed by John Feffer

Directed by Angela Kay Pirko

DC Arts Center, March 1 – 24, 2019

Order Tickets HERE.

How far would you travel to help other people? How many compromises would you make?

In this new one-man show, acclaimed playwright and performer John Feffer brings audiences as close to North Korea as they can get without a visa and an airplane ticket. Based on his visits to the country and the work he did there, Feffer explores the challenges of doing good in a morally ambiguous environment. He takes you inside Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum, up and down the Tower of the Juche Idea, out to the North Korean countryside, and into the hearts and minds of North Koreans themselves. Follow along as this “brilliant writer and performer” (Washington City Paper) brings you on an alternately funny, sobering, and thrilling trip of a lifetime.

REVIEW: Rave from Washington Diplomat: “Like all of Feffer’s varied writing, “Next Stop: North Korea” is delicious from start to finish.” Read it here.

REVIEW: Rave from The Nation: “As entertainment that deftly mixes history, satire, pathos, and comedy, Next Stop: North Korea is an unqualified success.” Read it here.

REVIEW: Four stars from DC Theatre Scene: read it here.

REVIEW: Thumb’s up from Broadway World: “Feffer is a brilliantly descriptive writer adept at fleshing out the details of people and the situations they encounter…this production is unique and deserves to be seen.” Read it here.

SNEAK PREVIEW of the show at DC Theatre Scene HERE.

And here’s a link to a recent article about the show from United Press International.

John Feffer is the writer and performer of the critically acclaimed one-man shows The Bird, Edible Rex, and Stuff. He is a recipient of a solo performance award in 2016 from the Maryland State Arts Council.

Angela Kay Pirko is a DC-based director and actor. She is a member of the 2014 Lincoln Center Directors Lab, two-time member of the Directors’ Studio at Shakespeare Theatre Company, and the co-producer/resident director for Nu Sass Productions.


Some photos from the production (credit: Angela Kay Pirko)

































Articles Featured Korea

Pyongyang on the Potomac

When Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un shook hands on June 30 at the line dividing the two Koreas, the pictures that appeared on front pages all over the world depicted two very different leaders. Trump is a tall, 73-year-old white man who leads the world’s most powerful democracy. Kim is a short, plump, 35-year-old Korean who heads up the world’s most notorious non-democracy. They look like the Laurel and Hardy or the Penn and Teller of geopolitics.

Appearances can be deceptive. Beyond their superficial differences, the two leaders share a great deal in common. In fact, their underlying similarities have helped cement an unlikely friendship.

But what is beneficial for international peace is ominous for the future of American democracy.

Back in 2011, Polish politician Lech Kaczynski looked longingly at how the right wing had taken over Hungary. Viktor Orban was running roughshod over Hungarian democracy, rewriting constitutions, controlling the press, suppressing civil society. Kaczynski said that he couldn’t wait to remake Warsaw, the capital of Poland, as a “Budapest on the Vistula.” When his party won both the presidency and a parliamentary majority, Kaczynski set about doing just that.

Donald Trump likewise looks longingly at the authoritarian states of Asia. He has remarked that the United States should experiment with China’s system of a “president for life.” In a host of other ways, Trump has emulated North Korea. Indeed, especially after his July 4 fusion of the personal, the patriotic, and the military, Trump seems to want nothing less than to create a Pyongyang on the Potomac.

He’s the Decider

The handshake at the Demilitarized Zone on June 30 was both an excellent PR stunt and a potentially important way to advance peace on the Korean peninsula.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un know a good photo op when they see one. They also have advisors whispering in their ears about the risks of rapprochement with the great devil across the sea. Yet they have established a rapport on the basis of their mutual love of self-aggrandizement. For better or worse, that’s often the currency of geopolitics. It’s certainly best to spend it on peace, not war.

For any progress to be made on improving U.S.-North Korean relations, however, the Trump administration has to move away from its all-or-nothing approach to negotiations. The administration has made some noises in the direction of the so-called small deal that would represent mutual compromises on the way to the goal of denuclearization, the elimination of economic sanctions against North Korea, and a peace agreement to replace the Korean War armistice.

Any deals of this sort, however, require patience and competence, two qualities sorely lacking in a president given to volatile mood swings and an administration that has gutted its chief institution of diplomacy, the State Department.

In both North Korea and the United States, the two leaders are increasingly the sole deciders. The North Korean political sphere has a veneer of collective leadership through the Politburo and the larger Workers Party, not to mention input from the army and the intelligence services. But in reality, nothing of significance goes forward without Kim Jong Un’s say so. In the United States, meanwhile, Trump’s “brain trust” promulgates the unitary executive theory, according to which the president controls the entire executive branch. Of course, Trump doesn’t need a theory when his gut feeling is sufficient. Never one to pay much attention to other people, Trump routinely ignores the advice of top officials and experts.

Both leaders have attempted to concentrate power in their own hands. Kim did so by simply killing his uncle Jang Song-Thaek and a host of other top officials (including the vice minister of the army, the ministers of education and agriculture, and several ambassadors).

Trump has resorted to less violent means but the result has been the same. The Trump administration has presided over a vast reduction of personnel in key U.S. agencies, like the Census Bureau and the Environmental Protection Agency. He’d like to get rid of the entire Office of Personnel Management. The purpose behind these cuts is not just to save money. It’s to eliminate potential hubs of resistance to the Trump administration’s plans and to Trump himself.

Trump has also increasingly relied on “acting” heads of agencies, including the Pentagon and Homeland Security. The president argues that this gives him greater “flexibility.” In fact, it allows him to prevent cabinet members from establishing much in the way of institutional legitimacy. Trump was not happy with the somewhat more independent thinking of Jim Mattis at the Pentagon or Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department.

One way that Trump has centralized power has been to fire his underlings and keep the administration in a state of flux. Trump “has the record for White House staff turnover, for cabinet turnover and now for the highest turnover within a single department,” according to Kathryn Dunn Tenpas of Brookings. Of course, some of the resignations have been because of incompetence or corruption. But high turnover is a tactic that Trump uses to keep appointees in line and diminish the power of the bureaucracy.

This kind of approach is well-suited to destroying things: a nuclear agreement with Iran, détente with Cuba, multiple efforts to address climate change. But actually creating something — like a treaty with North Korea — may prove beyond the capacity of an administration determined to reduce its own capacity.

Executive Orders

The difference between North Korea and the United States is that the former is a democracy in name alone. Despite Trump’s best efforts, he still comes up against what remains of democratic governance in the United States.

Consider Trump’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the U.S. census in 2020. The ploy is a naked attempt by the Republican Party to rig future elections. Don’t take my word for it. A top Republican operative, Thomas Hofeller, left behind evidence of just such a strategy on his computer when he died. According to The New York Times:

Files on those drives showed that he wrote a study in 2015 concluding that adding a citizenship question to the census would allow Republicans to draft even more extreme gerrymandered maps to stymie Democrats. And months after urging President Trump’s transition team to tack the question onto the census, he wrote the key portion of a draft Justice Department letter claiming the question was needed to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act — the rationale the administration later used to justify its decision.

Even without considering Hofeller’s computer files, the Supreme Court decided by a slim majority that the administration was lying about its rationale for including the citizenship question on the census. Just as in the administration’s earlier attempt to destroy the Affordable Care Act, it was Chief Justice John Roberts, an otherwise very conservative judge, who represented the swing vote.

But none of that matters to Trump. He has instructed Attorney General William Barr to come up with another rationale for the inclusion of the question, which will be no doubt as duplicitous as the first one that the Supreme Court rejected. And if that fails, Trump will bypass the Supreme Court — and the constitution — simply by issuing an executive order.

It’s not the first time that Trump has ruled by decree. He has issued more than 100 of them through the middle of May. Many are uncontroversial or just ceremonial. Others, like his Muslim travel ban or declaration of a state of emergency at the border, have provoked fierce opposition.

It’s one thing to try and bypass Congress. Other presidents have done that. It’s another to try and bypass the Supreme Court in such a blatant manner. That could very well throw the country into a constitutional crisis. Such a crisis would not be an unintended consequence of Trump’s attempt to create a semi-permanent Republican majority. It’s a deliberate effort to scupper the checks and balances of democracy.

Parallel Styles

Parades in Pyongyang feature displays of military might, patriotic bombast, and scores of cheering followers of the leader’s personality cult.

And now, in Trump’s America, so do celebrations of July 4.

Commentators expected a self-serving Independence Day speech from the president. So, when he instead offered a rambling review of American history, they gave him passing marks.

But the speech provided the same kind of distortions you might expect in North Korea. Trump urged young people to join the army, though he did everything he could to avoid the Vietnam War. He gave a shout-out to Harriet Tubman but has done his best to delay Tubman’s replacement of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. He praised the women’s movement and the civil rights movement, though his administration has done its utmost to reverse the gains of those struggles.

By devoting most of his speech to America’s military history, he turned the holiday into a celebration of martial spirit, an apt mirror of North Korea’s military-first doctrine. The tanks on the ground and the fighter jets overhead punctuated this point. The hardware also supplied a powerful subliminal message: if he deems it necessary, this president will bring the military out onto the streets of Washington, DC to secure the country’s freedom from all those who threaten it, whether they work for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or write for The New York Times.

The military-first approach is not the only similarity in style between Trump and Kim Jong Un. In North Korea, nepotism is the very structure of governance, with the Kim family controlling the state apparatus from the country’s inception. Today, Kim Jong Un’s sister serves as a top advisor and emissary. Similarly, Trump has installed his daughter and son-in-law as top advisors, and he imagines that Ivanka will become president one day. Perhaps even one day soon, as Bob Cesca explains at Salon:

In fact, there’s a rumor currently circulating among Republican circles in Washington in which Trump suddenly declines the nomination sometime next summer, presumably for health reasons, then lobbies the convention delegates to toss their votes to Ivanka as his rightful heir and the 2020 nominee. 

Then there’s the personal enrichment. Kim has a fortune of $5 billion at his disposal, with plenty of resources socked away in overseas accounts. There is no emoluments clause in North Korea’s constitution: the leader can use his office to extract as much wealth from the system as he pleases.

Trump’s ambitions are only somewhat more modest. For instance, he doubled his hotel income from 2016 to 2017, netting nearly $30 million, and he’s made more money at places like Mar-a-Lago from elevated fees. He even hopes to make money from his presidential library. But Trump probably hopes that presidential immunity will protect him from any future charges of financial impropriety, which would save him a great deal more money in the long run.

Back to That Handshake

As a relatively young man at the top of a rigidly hierarchical system, Kim Jong Un no doubt expects a long career ahead of him. But if U.S. sanctions continue to squeeze the North Korean economy, he will have an increasingly difficult task of delivering the goods to the elite, the sliver of middle class, and the struggling majority of the population. He needs a helping hand from the first American president willing to step onto his territory. Trump’s successor will not likely be so generous.

Donald Trump’s tenure is considerably more fragile. He’s no spring chicken. Many people in Congress are itching to impeach him. And plenty of voters can’t wait to eject him from office in 2020. But Trump knows that his political fate, not to mention his overall legacy, rests on his ability to shake things up and produce unexpected results – like a peace treaty with North Korea. But that depends on Kim Jong Un’s willingness to compromise.

The handshake across the DMZ might have united unusual bedfellows. But these two leaders also need each other for their own political survival. That’s good news for the potential reunification of the Korean peninsula. But the mirror-imaging that is taking place, the ongoing construction of Pyongyang on the Potomac, is bad news for transparency, good governance, human rights, and economic justice.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 10, 2019

Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Trump’s Bluster Diplomacy

It was not very long ago that Donald Trump was calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “Little Rocket Man” and threatening to rain “fire and fury” down on North Korea. In response, Kim called Trump a “dotard” and promised an equally fiery attack on the United States.

But now, two summits, the exchange of friendly letters, and a dramatic handshake at the DMZ have nearly erased what had once been a very tense relationship between the two leaders.

It’s tempting to assume that Trump approaches international relations according to the same template: aggressive threats followed by cordial diplomacy. It’s how he recently treated Mexico, for example, by threatening to impose an escalating series of sanctions on the country if it didn’t stop the flow of refugees across its northern border into the United States. The administration backed down after an interim agreement. The U.S. president seems to be approaching China in a similar fashion, with threats followed by a recent truce.

And then there’s Iran.

Since he took office, Trump has kept up a constant attack on Iran and its leadership. He has also taken aim at the nuclear agreement that the United States (alongside EU, Russia, and China) negotiated to eliminate any path Iran might take to building nuclear weapons. Last year, he withdrew the United States from that agreement.

More recently, the United States and Iran moved closer to the brink of outright conflict. The United States accused Iran of attacking several ships in the international waters of the Persian Gulf region. And Iran shot down an unmanned drone, which it accused of flying over Iranian territory. The Trump administration authorized a cyberattack on Iran in response and came very close to launching an aerial bombing of Iranian infrastructure.

Although several members of the Trump administration – notably National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – support a more active regime-change campaign against Iran, Trump seems less certain. He is not eager to start a ground war in the region. And he has expressed his desire on several occasions to sit down with Iranian officials to negotiate another agreement to replace the nuclear accord that he has done so much to destroy.

On the face of it, then, it seems as though Donald Trump is preparing to make the same pivot on Iran that he did with North Korea. He defied his advisors and the opinion of the Washington commentariat more generally to reach out to Kim Jong Un. Perhaps he is on the verge of doing the same thing with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

There are, however, significant differences between the two cases. With North Korea, Trump was effectively dealing with a clean diplomatic slate. The Obama administration had failed to negotiate any lasting agreement with Pyongyang. So, Trump has been able to position himself as a pathbreaker, as a president who not only outperforms his predecessor on this issue but all previous modern administrations as well. Indeed, Trump believes that his initiatives on North Korea will ultimately net him a Nobel Peace Prize.

Iran is a different matter. By coming close to destroying the Iran nuclear deal, Trump is not only ripping up a legacy of the Obama administration. He is angering European allies – as well as Russia and China – who have invested a great deal of political capital in that agreement. He is undermining U.S. credibility in the international community, particularly the assumption that Washington will abide by agreements that it signs.

And, of course, Trump has infuriated Iran. The restoration of sanctions removed by the Obama administration as part of the nuclear deal – plus the addition of even more sanctions – has severely affected the Iranian economy. The threat of secondary sanctions against any country doing business with Iran has further hurt the country, particularly by cutting into revenues from the energy sector.

The only segment of the Iranian population that is happy with Trump’s moves is the group of hardliners that never wanted rapprochement with the United States in the first place. These hardliners occupy important positions in the clerical hierarchy as well as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The latter was responsible for the shootdown of the U.S. drone and may have been involved in the naval incidents as well.

Even if Trump intends to pivot toward negotiations, Iran may no longer be interested in talking with Trump. Iranian officials don’t believe that they can trust anything that Washington says – and, after Trump has walked away from so many agreements that the United States has signed, they have a point.

Also, it’s not entirely clear that Trump has a consistent approach to U.S. adversaries. He doesn’t seem to have any interest in negotiating a new deal with Cuba to replace the Obama-era agreement. He doesn’t appear to want to talk with Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela. Perhaps Washington will eventually reach a trade deal with Beijing – but the Trump administration has continued a hardline approach to China on other issues from information technology to cybersecurity.

In other words, there is no consistent Trump doctrine such as “speak loudly, wave around your big stick, but ultimately get down to negotiations.” Worse, U.S. foreign policy has become concentrated in the hands of the president, with considerably less input from the State Department, the National Security Council, and the intelligence agencies.

The risk of war with North Korea has diminished considerably over the last year. But the risk of war with Iran remains high. It could happen by accident. It could happen by miscalculation.

Or it could happen because Donald Trump wakes up one morning and decides to follow through on all the threats that he has made. The same split-second decision that led him to meet Kim Jong Un at the DMZ might lead him to launch an attack on Iran. That’s what it means to have an erratic, inconsistent, and fundamentally irresponsible president in the White House.

Hankyoreh, July 7, 2019

Articles Featured Korea

Summit Interruptus

Of all the bizarre things that Donald Trump utters — the lies, the garbled words, the fanciful stories — his comments on his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are in a category by themselves.

“I was really tough and so was he, and we went back and forth,” Trump told a crowd of supporters in West Virginia in September. “And then we fell in love, OK? No, really, he wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters. We fell in love.”

Trump has bragged about these letters, has shown them to foreign visitors. The two leaders seem to enjoy a mutual personality cult that goes beyond even the friendships that Trump has cultivated with other authoritarian leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman.

So, expectations were high that Trump and Kim would consummate their relationship at a second summit in Vietnam and produce something of lasting importance: denuclearization, removal of economic sanctions, a peace declaration, an exchange of liaison offices.

But the two leaders didn’t even stay for the full meeting. They passed up a final lunch together and skipped the statement signing. The food left uneaten was statement enough. What was supposed to be the crowning achievement of Trump’s foreign policy, the one-and-only rationale for his receiving a Nobel Peace Prize, has turned into a high-profile embarrassment.

Trump reportedly went big and failed, and Kim reportedly went small and failed. Trump’s offer: scrap the nukes and the United States will scrap the sanctions. Kim’s bargain: North Korea would close one key part of the nuclear program, the complex at Yongbyon, in exchange for the removal of the latest and most onerous sanctions.

It was, in many ways, just a rehash of previous offers. The United States has been offering North Korea an all-or-nothing choice for many years now, and North Korea has countered with its preference for a step-by-step process. But Pyongyang’s counter-offer was nothing new either, since it had already closed down Yongbyon twice before as part of the Agreed Framework of 1994 and the Six Party Talks of the George W. Bush era.

Could the two leaders have really expected that these gambits would work in Hanoi?

Can love be so blind?

The Real Story

Trump wants a deal. Everyone else on his foreign policy team, however, thinks that a deal with North Korea is a lousy idea.

Prior to joining the administration, National Security Advisor John Bolton never concealed his preference for regime change in North Korea. He has become more circumspect in his rhetoric now that he’s within whispering distance of the president. But he is still doing what he can behind the scenes to ensure the failure of negotiations.

In Hanoi, for instance, Bolton reportedly inserted a demand that North Korea itemize not only on its nuclear facilities but also its biological and chemical weapons. Bolton made the same demand last May in the lead-up to the Singapore summit:

On the denuclearization side of the program, that means all aspects of their nuclear program. Clearly, the ballistic missiles program, as with Iran, with the intention of being a delivery system for nuclear weapons — that’s gotta go. I think we need to look at their chemical and biological weapons programs as well. The president’s going to raise other issues, the Japanese abductees, South Korean citizens who were kidnapped.

This kind of agenda-loading — plus an ominous reference to the “Libyan model” that Bolton knew would rub the North Koreans the wrong way — is exactly how Bolton likes to operate: he appears to be going with the program only to undermine it from within.

After the Hanoi summit self-destructed, Bolton declared it a “success” — because Trump rejected “a bad deal.” What Bolton really meant was: the summit was successful because it didn’t produce any deal.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, has been just as consistently hawkish as Bolton about North Korea. Heading into the Vietnam summit, he was careful to contradict his president by asserting that North Korea remained a nuclear threat. And then he also made clear that North Korea would get no sanctions reduction until that threat was “substantially reduced.” Pompeo’s own skepticism that anything could be accomplished in Hanoi shaped his pre-summit predictions that “we may not get everything done this week.”

As for the North Korean side, Kim Jong Un obviously doesn’t feel backed up against a wall. He wasn’t going to accept what the Americans had repeatedly offered in the past (even Pompeo understood this). He might have also thought that Trump was the desperate one — attacked on all sides at home, eager to get a deal to prove his negotiating skills, blinded by his desire for a Nobel prize. In the end, Kim has time on his side. He’s in his thirties and doesn’t have to run for reelection. Trump is in his seventies and his reelection chances are not robust.

As with any lovers’ spat, there are disagreements after the fact about who said what. Trump blamed the North Koreans for insisting on the removal of all sanctions. Then the North Koreans held their own press conference to counter that they had asked only for a partial lifting of sanctions. An unnamed senior State Department official ultimately confirmed the North Korean version.

It’s one thing for the administration to attempt to spin the summit for its own purposes to suggest that the collapse wasn’t the U.S. fault, or that the result was actually a success not a failure. But the spin coming from other quarters has been equally disturbing.

Summit Aftermath

The summit didn’t achieve anything new. But let’s be clear: U.S.-North Korean relations are in a much better place today than 18 months ago.

Pyongyang remains committed to a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. And the United States is scaling back on its war games with South Korea.

Right after the summit ended, the United States announced that it was effectively canceling its large-scale Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military exercises, replacing them with much smaller drills. Trump tweeted:

The reason I do not want military drills with South Korea is to save hundreds of millions of dollars for the U.S. for which we are not reimbursed. That was my position long before I became President. Also, reducing tensions with North Korea at this time is a good thing!

The Democratic Party, so afraid before the summit that the president would make unacceptable concessions to North Korea, has reacted venomously to even the paltry olive branch that Trump has extended to Pyongyang.

“Of course the president did give up a great deal by going to that summit, by enhancing Kim Jong Un’s prestige on the world stage, by giving up those military exercises in the last summit and getting nothing for it.,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said on Face the Nation. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum added, “Nobody can be quite so certain, in the future, of our absolute willingness to defend South Korean allies who have received so much less attention from this president than their enemies in the North.”

But wait — South Korea is practically begging the Trump administration to move forward with reconciliation with the North. It agreed to the suspension of the military exercises. This was not the United States abandoning its ally. Only conservative opponents of the Moon Jae-in government are putting up a fuss about the decision on the war games.

Then there is the demand that human rights be part of the negotiations with North Korea. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl writes:

Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea has been revealed as a fantasy. Real progress would require a restart based on patient diplomacy, ramped-up pressure, and a recognition that the problem entails not just nuclear reactors and missile factories, but torture chambers and concentration camps.

I’m sorry, Jackson, but you’re the one stuck in a fantasy. Sure, patient diplomacy is a key element. Pressure, too, plays a part in geopolitics. But bringing human rights to negotiations about a nuclear program is a sure recipe for failure. Delinking security negotiations from human rights concerns has been the sine qua non of arms-control talks since the 1960s. It’s the only way the United States could negotiate with the Soviets in the 1980s and the only way it could achieve a nuclear agreement with Iran in 2015.

Of course, the human rights situation in North Korea is appalling. Of course, the world community must address the labor camps in the country. But linking human rights to the country’s nuclear program is a sure-fire way of ensuring failure on both fronts.

Finally, columnists have gone to town on Trump for his acceptance of Kim Jong Un’s assertion that he knew nothing about Otto Warmbier, the U.S. college student who was detained in the country, spent many months in a coma in a North Korean prison, and was returned home only to die a week later. Kathleen Parker, in the Post, compares Trump’s credulity in this matter to his acquiescence to Vladimir Putin (on Russian involvement in the U.S. elections) and Mohammed bin Salman (on the crown prince’s involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi).

It’s unquestionably stupid for Trump to accept the word of any world leader, particularly an autocrat — just as no world leader should accept Trump’s word.

But these situations are not parallel. There is considerable proof the Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. It would be inconceivable that Mohammed bin Salman did not issue the order to get rid of one of his chief critics.

But there is actually very little information about what caused Otto Warmbier to fall into a coma. A medical examination revealed that there was no obvious signs of trauma, much less torture. It would have been highly unusual for North Korea to torture an American college student. He was not a critic of the North Korean regime. No American detainees had previously been killed. Most had been treated rather respectfully, though often subjected to psychological stresses. Americans are useful bargaining chips. Dead or seriously harmed Americans are not.

In other words, there was no motive for Kim Jong Un to order the torture of an American just for the hell of it. He was no doubt aware of the detention. And he has certainly been ruthless in his actions — like killing his uncle and his half-brother. But those killings were politically motivated. In contrast, the North Koreans seemed eager to release Warmbier to the Trump administration so that they wouldn’t have a dead American on their hands.

The death of Otto Warmbier was indeed a tragedy. And North Korea should provide an account of what really happened to the young man. But his death should not prevent rapprochement between North Korean and the United States.

So, in the end, the bromance between Trump and Kim is icky and deserving of ridicule. But hey, to negotiate with a dictator, sometimes it takes a dictator (or a dictator wannabe). There’s still hope that the United States and North Korea can come to some partial agreement that freezes North Korea’s nuclear capability as is (with the hope of reduction later on) and removes some sanctions from the country so that the North Korean economy can grow (and improve people’s lives). Even the current pause in hostilities is beneficial because it allows Seoul and Pyongyang to move incrementally toward reconciliation.

Let’s hope for a third summit. Let’s hope that the love letters continue. Let’s even follow Moon Jae-in’s lead and praise Donald Trump for his political savviness.

Meanwhile, I’ll hold my nose, keep my eyes averted, and hope for peace.

Articles Featured Korea

The Next US-North Korean Summit

The second meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un is scheduled for next month. The most likely location will be Vietnam. The agenda is much the same as before: how to get North Korea to denuclearize and the United States to dismantle its sanctions regime. The question remains: which side will make the first substantial move?

The summit comes at a particular difficult time for Trump. The partial shutdown of the federal government is nearing the end of its third week, and most Americans blame the president. Pentagon chief James Mattis resigned over Trump’s insistence on withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, a policy that other administration officials have attempted to reverse. The president faces fresh criticism of his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the House of Representatives, now in the hands of the opposition Democratic Party, is getting ready to launch a slew of investigations into Trump’s affairs and policies.

Kim Jong Un, on the other hand, has been busy consolidating his position. He visited China for the fourth time this month and began making arrangements for Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s first visit to North Korea this spring. Relations with the South are proceeding more-or-less smoothly, with the groundbreaking ceremony for a new inter-Korean railroad taking place late last year.

In his annual New Year’s speech, Kim confidently spoke of his country’s ability to defend against any military attacks but spent the bulk of his speech identifying the economic advances the country has made and the challenges that remain. He did not project the image of a man in a corner. Rather, he appeared to be a man with options. He could keep his nukes or dismantle them. He could negotiate with the United State or not. He could fall back on China’s support if necessary.

A politically weak Trump and more confident Kim could be the best possible combination for a successful summit. Trump is desperate to demonstrate that he can successfully negotiate with someone, anyone. He is acutely aware of the criticism, particularly at home, generated by the first summit in Singapore. He wants to silence his critics with a grand foreign policy gesture.

Kim, meanwhile, has the backing of Beijing and the prospects of moving forward quickly on the economic front with South Korea. He may well be in the mood to compromise.

Trump has already been hit with preemptive criticism for his plan to meet Kim again in a second summit. “Trump has a history of making one-sided foreign policy moves without getting anything in return,” USA Today’s editorial board, for instance, complained. “What would Trump give Kim to preserve the appearance of diplomatic progress? Kim’s long-sought dream of a formal end to the Korean War, granting him legitimacy as leader of the north? Withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea?”

In The Washington Post, meanwhile, former Pentagon official Van Jackson argues that diplomacy has so far made no headway in addressing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. He worries about four possible negative outcomes from a second summit. There might be no diplomatic progress. North Korea could be stalling as a tactic to advance its missile program, Trump might suffer a global embarrassment if the summit flops. Or Kim might maneuver Trump into making a unilateral concession like withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea.

It’s easy to criticize diplomacy. When it does succeed, it’s only after months or years of minimal if any progress.

It’s also easy to criticize summits. They are often just for show.

Finally, it’s very easy to criticize Donald Trump. He shows little knowledge of or interest in foreign affairs. He believes that he alone can solve complex problems. And he is, above all, capricious in his behavior. He will change his positions from one hour to the next.

So, in the lead-up to the second Kim-Trump summit, expect even more negative press and critical commentary. It’s not just pundits. The Democratic Party savaged Trump after the Singapore summit. It’s a good bet that the opposition, now that it’s in charge of the House, will be tempted to use a meeting between the president and yet another autocrat to score some political points.

Here’s why I’m not so pessimistic about a second summit.

First of all, it would keep Trump engaged on the issue of Korea and focused on negotiations rather than war. As long as the U.S. president believes that he has a good friend in Pyongyang, he’s not as likely to make rash threats against North Korea or act on them.

Also, even though negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear program have not advanced, they are still in play. The situation right now is better than the “strategic patience” that the Obama administration adopted for most of its two terms – which amounted to ignoring North Korea and hoping that it would unilaterally change its policies. A summit may only sustain the illusion that negotiations are creeping forward. But even such an illusion is beneficial in light of the alternatives: a hostile standoff or an actual war.

A summit provides cover for inter-Korean rapprochement to continue. That’s why South Korean President Moon Jae-in is enthusiastic about such spectacles. When Trump shakes Kim’s hand, it sends a strong message that it’s perfectly okay for Seoul and Pyongyang to work together as well.

Finally, a summit offers an occasion for Trump to do something radically different. Most American pundits fear that the president will do something rash, as he has done by announcing a U.S. military withdrawal from Syria. I, for one, would welcome something similarly rash from Trump on Korea.

So far, U.S.-North Korean negotiations have stalled because North Korea has a single bargaining chip that it is reluctant to give up and the United States refuses to embrace the approach of step-by-step concessions. Somebody has to break this deadlock. As the much stronger party in the negotiations, the United States should be the one to shift its position and offer the first concession.

In other words, I support a second summit for the very same reason that the prospective meeting worries so many U.S. pundits. I welcome the possibility that Donald Trump will do something rash.

Donald Trump is a president who makes a great many stupid, aggressive, and destabilizing policy moves at home and abroad. Let’s hope that next month he does something rash for peace instead.

Hankyoreh, January 20, 2019