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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

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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

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Will Impeachment Affect Trump’s Reelection Chances?

One of the hallmarks of a democratic political system is that voters change their minds. In North Korea, 100 percent of voters support the ruling party coalition in election after election. In South Korea since 1998, voters backed 10 years of progressive candidates followed by 10 years of conservative candidates. Then, after a dramatic turnaround in public opinion, South Koreans rallied to impeach the previous president, Park Geun-hye.

In the United States, meanwhile, voters elected Barack Obama to two terms and then opted for someone completely different in 2016. In fact, somewhere between six and nine million people who voted for Obama in 2012 switched to Donald Trump in 2016.

It’s difficult to know what will happen in the 2020 elections. But despite a number of scandals involving the Trump administration – officials resigning in disgrace like Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke or charged with wrongdoing like National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, allegations of corruption and violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, and foreign policy fiascos like the trade war with China and the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria – public opinion about the president has remained rather steady.

Donald Trump’s approval rating has gone up and down since he was elected, but not by very much. Except for when he first took office, when he managed to score a 45 percent approval rating – versus 41 percent disapproval – a majority of Americans have given his job performance a thumb’s down. His approval rating has hovered around 40 percent.

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that the current impeachment hearings in the United States are having so little impact on public opinion. Support for impeachment has held steady around 46 percent. If anything, despite additional damaging evidence that the U.S. president indeed attempted to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into helping Trump’s reelection prospects, support for impeachment has dipped slightly.

Americans have made up their minds about Donald Trump. For those who oppose the president, the evidence of wrongdoing coming out of the impeachment hearings is reinforcing their worst fears about the administration. Trump supporters, meanwhile, are following the lead of the Republican Party by dismissing the hearings as boring, trivial, or irrelevant.

This lack of variation in public opinion stands in marked contrast to the South Korean example. In September 2015, more than a year after the Sewol disaster, Park Geun-hye’s approval rating stood at 54 percent. Half a year later, it had fallen to a low of 31. 5 percent. By November 2016, as scandal engulfed the administration, her approval rate had dropped to 4 percent. Park Geun-hye, in other words, was not scandal-proof.

Yet no matter the number of offensive comments he makes or scandals that tarnish the reputation of his administration, Donald Trump can count on a secure base of support. These are the people who will stand by him even if, as Trump famously said, he shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Of course, a base of support of 40 percent is not enough to win a head-to-head election. But Donald Trump doesn’t need to win the popular vote. Hillary Clinton won by nearly 3 million votes in 2016 but lost in the Electoral College. Her close loss by a combined total of 77,000 votes in three key states – Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – meant that those states’ electoral votes represented Trump’s margin of victory.

In 2020, Trump could lose by 5 million votes and still carry the Electoral College. In other words, he just needs to maintain his base of support in the key battleground states. He could even lose Michigan and Pennsylvania and still be reelected as long as he wins all the states he won in 2016. It doesn’t matter if everyone on the two coasts rejects him as long as he maintains an edge in the South, the Southwest, and the Midwest and Rust Belt.

Much depends on the U.S. economy. The unemployment rate is at 3.6 percent, which is very low. The stock market is booming.

True, economic growth is low, debt levels are skyrocketing, and trade disputes continue to hit certain sectors very hard.

But Trump is trying to do everything possible to prevent an inevitable recession from hitting before the 2020 election. The president has even called on the Federal Reserve to slash interest rates to below zero. The last time interest rates were zero was during the Great Depression. A negative interest rate would mean that the bank would essentially pay people to take out loans.

Trump knows that he only needs to get his numbers up by a couple percentage points in a couple key states – Wisconsin, Florida – in order to win in 2020. A strong economy is an essential part of his game plan.

His other strategy is to encourage political polarization. Trump knows that his incendiary comments about immigrants, his racially coded denunciations of African American and Latino members of Congress, and his all-out war on the Washington bureaucracy play very well with his base. The president continues to portray himself as an outsider willing to take extreme measures to battle a political status quo. American voters consistently want “change” – that’s why so many millions of people voted for Obama and then for Trump. At least 40 percent of the electorate believe that Trump is battling corrupt, entrenched interests.

The impeachment hearings, unfortunately for the Democrats, reinforce Trump’s narrative that he is David taking on the Goliath of the state. According to the president, he was just trying to root out corruption by enlisting the help of the Ukrainian president to investigate the alleged wrongdoing of Joe Biden’s son and the alleged interference of Ukraine in the U.S. elections in 2016. Trump’s base doesn’t believe that these allegations have been thoroughly debunked.

So, don’t expect Trump’s approval ratings to drop like Park Geun-hye’s during these impeachment hearings. The president will continue to argue that the Democrats are out to get him now through impeachment because they don’t think they can vote him out in the 2020 elections. However misleading that argument may be, Trump might be right about his chances in the next election.

Still, his strategy is risky. A polarizing platform and rhetoric can energize a political base. But it can also make just enough enemies to kill a political future.

Hankyoreh, November 25, 2019

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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

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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.

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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

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What Trump Means by the Deep State

Donald Trump has many enemies. And he has long had an enemies list: all the people that he has attacked repeatedly in person, in print, and on Twitter.

But now Trump, as president, has drawn up a formal enemies list. At the top is John Brennan, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency who just had his security clearance revoked. The president has assembled a list of other top former officials that are next in line for similar treatment. This list includes former CIA head Michael Hayden, former FBI chief James Comey, and former National Security Advisor Susan Rice. It even includes a current Justice Department official, Bruce Ohr.

These top-level officials from several administrations are on Trump’s enemy list for any or all of the following reasons. They publicly criticized the president. They’ve been connected to the investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Or they’re simply a member of the “deep state.”

The “deep state” is the right-wing assertion that a shadowy group of people inside and outside of government are working together to thwart the Trump agenda. They are doing this by engaging in a “witch hunt” against the president by linking him to Russian misconduct. They are leaking information to the press. And they are throwing sand into the gears of state to slow down various Trump initiatives.

Unfortunately, the “deep state” narrative also has some appeal to progressives in the United States, who have long been concerned about the actions of the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and other powerful institutions. They point to J. Edgar Hoover, the long-serving head of the FBI, who accumulated enormous power in his position and ran undercover operations against such notable figures as Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the U.S. context, however, the “deep state” is a myth. The FBI, CIA, and NSA are indeed powerful institutions. But even when they have acted illegally, these organizations have done so at the behest of the president. Yes, there have been occasional rogue operations like Oliver North’s contra-supply network, but even this operation advanced rather than impeded presidential policy.

Granted, Donald Trump is a deeply unpopular figure in Washington power circles. Many federal employees are very unhappy with how Trump has reversed Obama-era policies on the environment, labor, education, and so on. They have released information to the press. They have tried to slow down some of Trump’s initiatives. But they are not united in a “deep state” conspiracy.

The intelligence and law enforcement communities fall into a different category.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is heading an ongoing investigation into the various crimes and misdemeanors of the Trump cohort. The investigators are attempting to apply the rule of law even to the highest-ranking officials in the administration. Meanwhile, the intelligence community is concerned not just about the past actions of the Russian government to influence U.S. elections but the ongoing relationship between the White House and the Kremlin. Former members of these communities remain well respected and influential in Washington and overseas as well.

Trump’s “enemies list” is an effort to eliminate all vestiges of opposition to the president within the bureaucracy of law enforcement and the intelligence community. He’s interested not only in silencing his most vocal critics. To use the Chinese expression, Trump is killing the monkey to scare the chickens. He is punishing the most prominent and well-known figures in order to ensure that everyone in the FBI, CIA, NSA, NSC, and elsewhere toes the line. Indeed, National Security Advisor John Bolton is talking about reviewing the security clearances of more than 4 million people.

Trump’s actions are all too familiar.

In Poland, when the right-wing populist Law and Justice Party took over, one of its first acts was to purge the military. It even conducted a raid on a counter-intelligence center in Warsaw to replace the head. More recently, the far right-wing government coalition partner in Austria, the Freedom Party, took advantage of its control of the Interior Ministry to raid the country’s intelligence service and fire many top officials. As a result, other intelligence services in Europe have stopped working with their Austrian counterparts. And in Turkey, where the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan popularized the phrase “deep state,” the president has ordered a thoroughgoing purge of the military, law enforcement, and intelligence.

In all of these cases, the ruling parties have been afraid of any threat to their control. Trump, too, wants only loyalists around him. Even Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an early Trump supporter, has earned repeated criticism from the president for not putting loyalty to Trump above the law.

In some countries, of course, powerful institutions threaten not just ruling parties but the very foundations of democracy. In South Korea, for instance, a notoriously conservative military intelligence unit drafted a memo in spring 2017 on mobilizing army units to suppress anti-government demonstrations in the event that the Constitutional Court overturned President Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment. The document hinted at the possibility of martial law and even a military coup.

Although a military coup is very unlikely to succeed in South Korea, such scenarios are far more commonplace in countries where a real “deep state” of anti-democratic forces is more powerful – such as Montenegro, Burkina Faso, Thailand, and Libya.

In the United States or Poland or Austria, however, the “deep state” doesn’t exist. It’s just a convenient story that leaders tell to scare the people and consolidate their own power. Enough Americans were fooled by Trump’s lies in 2016 to elect him. Let’s hope that they won’t be fooled again by his “enemies list” and his latest set of lies about the “deep state.”

Hankyoreh, August 28, 2018

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The Energy of Delusion Podcast

The Energy of Delusion brings you the latest imaginative writing from John Feffer, author of the Splinterlands series, the thriller Foamers, and numerous works of non-fiction.

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Trump’s Next Move on North Korea

Donald Trump loves to talk about war.

Last year, Trump was ready to invade Venezuela, until calmer heads in his inner circle persuaded him that it wasn’t a good idea. He has recently escalated his threats against Iran, and his secretary of state has explicitly endorsed regime change there. After his meeting with NATO leaders, he even broached the subject of a World War III started by the “very aggressive people” of Montenegro.

The current U.S. president is the most bellicose-sounding leader in modern American history.

Not that long ago, Trump was also talking about war with North Korea, promising to rain “fire and fury” down upon Pyongyang. But in recent months he has changed his tune. In fact, North Korea is one of the few longstanding adversaries of the United States that Trump hasn’t threatened recently. The contrast between Trump’s rhetoric toward Iran (which has no nuclear weapons) and North Korea (which does) is quite stark.

After his summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump remains committed to pursuing détente and denuclearization with Pyongyang. He has disputed media accounts that he is disappointed with the pace of negotiations. He has also tweeted his appreciation of North Korea for beginning to dismantle its satellite launch site at Sohae.

North Korea has not pushed forward with denuclearization as quickly as some observers hoped. It hasn’t taken any steps to reduce its nuclear arsenal. In fact, according to a recent U.S. intelligence assessment, North Korea continues to produce highly enriched uranium for additional nuclear weapons. Nor has North Korea even provided a list of all its nuclear-weapons-related sites or an inventory of its nuclear weapons.

Still, North Korea has given several indications that it is serious about de-escalating tensions. It has maintained a moratorium on all missile and nuclear tests. It at least partially destroyed its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri (it may only have destroyed the entrances rather than the tunnels themselves). And most recently it began the partial dismantlement of its satellite-launch station.

None of these moves is irreversible. But given the Trump administration’s tendency to renege on deals – like the Iran nuclear deal – North Korea would frankly be crazy to do anything yet that it can’t later reverse.

South Korea has also taken some important steps forward on conflict reduction. Most recently, it reported that it will reduce the number of guard posts along the DMZ and withdraw some military equipment as well.

The United States, however, has not made any reciprocal moves. It canceled the summer military exercises with South Korea. But it hasn’t shown any flexibility on the issue of economic sanctions.

Indeed, the Trump administration has pushed for stricter implementation of sanctions at the UN, citing North Korean violations of petroleum imports. The United States has upped the pressure on China and Russia to enforce these sanctions. And last week, several U.S. government agencies sent out an advisory that reminded businesses and individuals of the penalties of engaging economically with Pyongyang.

Seoul has officially requested exemptions to the sanctions that would allow it to pursue certain economic projects with Pyongyang. It will likely have the support of both Russia and China for such exemptions.

The ball is in the U.S. court. If Trump truly wants to move forward with the deal he struck with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, then he has to put his money where his mouth is.

The U.S. government can grant these exemptions while still maintaining an otherwise strict sanctions regime. It can still prevent U.S. businesses and individuals from engaging with North Korea. It can still push for the tighter implementation of sanctions connected to critical resources, like petroleum, that North Korea needs.

What South Korea is looking for, however, are exemptions that would permit the restart of joint economic programs like the Kaesong industrial zone and inter-Korean tourism operations.

The Moon Jae-in government, which did so much to nudge both sides toward the Singapore summit, is now feeling pressure from both sides on the sanction issue. North Korea wants the U.S. ally to produce some evidence of U.S. flexibility. And Washington wants its Korean ally to hang tough on sanctions until North Korea produces more results on its nuclear program. It’s an unenviable position for Seoul.

South Korea is also facing a demand from the North to repatriate several North Korean workers from a restaurant in China who “defected” in 2016. It turns out that the manager of the restaurant had tricked the women into leaving for South Korea, and at least some of them now want to return to the north.

One other major challenge is the desire of both Koreas to put an official end to the Korean War. Washington has traditionally shown a good deal of resistance to signing a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the war in 1953.

These are not insuperable problems. But they do require that all sides sit down and talk. It doesn’t help when North Korea skips a meeting, as it did in mid-July on the repatriation of U.S. soldiers who died in the Korean War. It also doesn’t help when the United States shows up and makes uncompromising demands, as it did when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last visited Pyongyang.

Donald Trump confounded the foreign policy elite by making the bold move to meet Kim Jong Un in Singapore. It’s time for him to make another bold move to get negotiations back on track. Granting Seoul an exemption on sanctions against North Korea could be just such a gesture.

Hankyoreh, July 29, 2018

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What’s Next with North Korea?

The Trump administration wants North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons by 2020 after which it would get sanctions relief. Pyongyang insists on a phased and synchronized approach with incentives and concessions along the way. On paper, these are not entirely incompatible approaches.

In reality, however, nuclear weapons occupy too important a place in North Korea’s national security – as deterrent against attack, as bargaining chip, as shortcut to achieving strategic balance on the Korean peninsula – to be given up easily. Meanwhile, the U.S. foreign policy establishment is skeptical of any process that rewards North Korea for actions short of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID).

The most likely post-Singapore scenario, then, is a protracted set of negotiations over the very terms of negotiations. The first (unsuccessful) step in this process took place in early July with Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang. If both sides can agree on terms, however, some hesitant moves toward denuclearization can follow.

Meanwhile, as Washington and Pyongyang negotiate their differences, the two Koreas can use this extended pause in hostilities to restart the slow-motion reunification of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun years. That means a resumption of direct links (hotline between capitals, direct marine radio communication), joint economic projects (tourism, Kaesong Industrial Zone), infrastructure coordination (inter-Korean rail), NGO initiatives (reforestation), and cultural exchanges.

The two sides are potentially going further. On the table are such proposals as pulling back long-range artillery pieces from the DMZ and establishing a Pyongyang bureau for the South Korean news agency Yonhap.

Inter-Korean reconciliation depends at least in part on an ongoing détente between Washington and Pyongyang. That détente in turn requires at least the promise of denuclearization. As long as the United States and North Korea keep talking, the two Koreas can get on with the business of creating a more durable peace on the ground.

Nuclear disarmament is an important goal. But denuclearization was not one of the demands the United States made of China during the détente of the 1970s. Détente, however, ensured that China, once embedded in the international system and the global economy, would be considerably less likely to use nuclear weapons.

Ultimately, that should be the U.S. goal with North Korea as well. CVID may well be a chimera. But Washington and Seoul can engage Pyongyang in ways that make it less likely to use any of its weapons.

National Interest, July 20, 2018