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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

Articles Featured Korea

A Progressive Victory over the Coronavirus

The current pandemic has led to the postponement of elections around the world.

Over 75 countries have declared some kind of state of emergency. Several illiberal leaders, like Viktor Orban, have used the crisis to seize virtually unlimited powers. The Chinese model of full-spectrum clampdown has elicited praise across the political spectrum for its apparent effectiveness in combating the virus.

But one country has taken a very different approach.

South Korea held elections last week. Even amid a worldwide pandemic, more South Koreans went to the polls than in any parliamentary election since 1992. They weren’t turning out in protest. Rather, they gave the ruling party — and the president, Moon Jae-in — the largest parliamentary majority of any party since the country became a democracy.

The surge in support for the left-of-center ruling party has been because of the coronavirus, not despite it. The government’s handling of the crisis has received top marks both domestically and internationally.

Moon Jae-in has not been content to promote a return to the status quo that existed prior to the outbreak. He campaigned on a platform of transformation, one that has not been fully appreciated outside of Korea.

The South Korean example, because it holds many lessons for progressives around the world, offers a vivid refutation of the notion that the world, after the pandemic subsides, will necessarily shift further to the right.

Dealing with Pandemic

In late February, South Korea had the most coronavirus cases outside of China.

A cult-like church was responsible for a large outbreak in the southern city of Daegu, and the hospitals there were being overwhelmed. The government was scrambling to contain the crisis. A petition to impeach the president for his failure to address the pandemic garnered 1.4 million signatures. The country was getting bad press, like Suki Kim’s hack job in The New Yorker.

This week, less than two months later, the number of new cases of the coronavirus has dropped to a mere dozen or so a day. South Korea has had a little over 10,000 cases but only 236 deaths, for a mortality rate of a little over 2 percent. There have been more deaths in Springfield, Massachusetts (246) than in all of South Korea. That’s a metro area of about 700,000 people, compared to a country of about 50 million.

The United States and South Korea both registered their first coronavirus infections at the same time.

South Korea has achieved this success without closing down the economy. It shuttered schools and museums, and churches have held services online. But many restaurants and even movie theaters remained open. The unquarantined continued to travel with few restrictions around the country.

This ability to avoid full lockdown has relied on a robust and widespread system of testing, contact tracing, and quarantining. South Korea was one of the first countries in the world to manufacture kits in large enough quantities to test a significant portion of the population. It has gathered information on the movement of infected persons via cell phone data, credit card records, and closed-circuit television, and it shared some of that information publicly. It requisitioned the membership list of the cult-like religion in Daegu to shut down that infected cluster.

This system required some loss of privacy, which many Koreans seemed willing to give up. Oh Jeong Hyeon is a scholar at the Wilson Center. “In my opinion, COVID-19 is spreading quickly, and the disclosure of patient information is indispensable. The information not only lets people avoid the area of the outbreak, but also encourages people who were there to be examined quickly,” he told journalist Jean Lee, also at the Wilson Center. “That’s why the government needs patients’ information, and to me this is worth sacrificing privacy.”

The technological sophistication of the population — with an Internet penetration rate of 96 percent and mobile Internet usage of 90 percent — has enabled citizens to jump into the fight against the coronavirus. Programmers came up with interactive maps that provide information about where new infections have emerged. One popular app warns you if you come within 100 meters of the last tracked location of an infected person.

It’s not just coders that have gotten in on the effort. Musicians in the Seoul Philharmonic have put on virtual concerts to help get people through these difficult times. Violinist Won Hyung-Joon has gone even further by visiting hospitals and playing directly for coronavirus patients.

South Korea, contrary to popular belief, is not a high-trust society. People do not march in lock-step out of fealty to Confucianism or some collective ideology. But they do have a stronger sense of the common good than, say, teenagers partying in Florida or right-wing demonstrators in various states fed up with stay-at-home restrictions. South Koreans maintained physical distancing, complied with testing and quarantine protocols, and worked together despite some profound political, economic, and social divisions in the country.

At the international level, Moon Jae-in has reached out to help North Korea weather the pandemic. He has given advice to the Trump administration. After a tiff with Tokyo early on around travel restrictions, he directed his foreign minister to meet by video call with counterparts from Japan and China to discuss coronavirus cooperation.

When Maryland Governor Larry Hogan needed testing kits recently, he gave up on the Trump administration. The Republican governor pragmatically turned to South Korea and, courtesy of his Korean-speaking wife, negotiated a deal for 5,000 kits capable of administering 500,000 tests.

Early on, the U.S. news media was astonished by the statistics that showed Korea testing as many people per day as the United States was testing in 14 days. Even more astonishing is that, this late in the game, the governor of a state right next to Washington, DC has to get test kits from 7,000 miles away.

Moon’s Quantum Leap

During the election campaign, Moon Jae-in emphasized that it was no time for complacency with the economic status quo during the coronavirus crisis. Rather, it was an “opportunity for South Korea to restructure its economy — capitalizing on industries like AI and biopharma,” observes Minseon Ku, a scholar at Ohio State University. Moon said prior to the election that South Korea “can be the country that overcomes the crisis the fastest through solidarity and cooperation.”

What that means in practice is pushing forward with an agenda that had been largely blocked by the opposition in parliament. Now, halfway through his five-year tenure as president, Moon no longer has to worry about that opposition. Writes Doug Bandow in The National Interest about last week’s election, “The right had its worst legislative result since 1960. A former prime minister and parliamentary floor leader were ousted from the National Assembly. Party leaders are likely to take responsibility by resigning, leading to further disarray in the once‐​powerful right.”

The bottom line is that Moon’s party has a parliamentary super-majority that can push through its economic agenda. That means addressing rising income inequality, though probably more through job creation than wage increases. It also means finally reducing the power of the big corporations, or chaebols, which have been at the center of economic corruption for decades.

But the challenge for South Korea is two-fold. The economy is export-driven, and global trade is taking a big hit during this crisis. Also, despite some grand words about the dangers of climate change, the Korean economy remains carbon-intensive. The capital, Seoul, has a reputation for having the largest carbon footprint of any city in the world.

So, tweaking the Korean economy isn’t going to work. It needs a quantum leap into a fundamentally different economic system.

Strangely, the mainstream press has missed Moon’s larger economic goal. He’s not just looking at AI, job creation, and boosting small and medium-sized enterprises.

Last month, his Democratic Party pledged to implement a Green New Deal that will make South Korea carbon-neutral by 2050, the first country in Asia to make such a pledge. Writes Chloé Farand in Climate Change News: “The plan includes large-scale investments in renewable energy, the introduction of a carbon tax, the phase out of domestic and overseas coal financing by public institutions, and the creation of a Regional Energy Transition Centre to support workers transition to green jobs.”

The coronavirus crisis has given this political opportunity to Moon. You know what they say: a crisis equals danger plus opportunity.

Actually, let’s walk back that statement…

Crisis ≠ Danger Plus Opportunity 

It is often said that, in Chinese, the character for crisis translates into danger plus opportunity. The reality is a bit more complex. Rather than opportunity, explains Sinologist Victor Mair, the second element of the crisis character really translates into either “incipient moment” or “resourcefulness” or “machine.”

“Any would-be guru who advocates opportunism in the face of crisis should be run out of town on a rail, for his/her advice will only compound the danger of the crisis,” Mair adds.

The Korean words for “crisis” (wi gi) and “opportunity” (gi hwae) derive from the same Chinese characters. The current coronavirus crisis thus presents not an obvious danger plus an opportunity to be seized. Rather, following Mair’s analysis of the critical phoneme gi, it is a time of danger and a moment for technological resourcefulness. In other words, digging into the word “resourcefulness,” it’s a time to use scientific know-how to put available resources to more efficient or ingenious use.

I can’t think of a better definition of the Green New Deal. That’s what this double crisis of pandemic and climate change demands: using science to make better use of existing resources. South Korea, having beaten back the coronavirus and demonstrated that democracy can flourish even in an emergency, is now poised to show the world how to move forward to save lives and the planet.

Foreign Policy In Focus, April 22, 2020

Articles Featured Korea

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

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 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

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 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

Articles Featured Korea

Is Korea’s Cold War About to End?

Remarkable changes are taking place on the Korean peninsula.

The two Koreas are actually starting to demilitarize the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Just in the last couple weeks, they have taken down 22 guard posts, demined the Joint Security Area, and established a no-fly-zone about the peninsula’s dividing line. They’ve pulled back from confrontation along their maritime boundary. North Korea has shut down its coastal artillery units and the two sides have discussed a plan to reduce the large number of artillery positions near the border.

One key indicator of the seriousness of these changes: speculators are driving up the price of land near the border on the South Korean side. Even in a slow-motion reunification scenario, this farmland will become increasingly valuable.

The two Koreas have also revived plans to reunify economically, step by step. At the third inter-Korean summit, the leaders of the two countries agreed to relink, finally, the railroad as well as roads and to restart the shuttered Kaesong industrial complex, which married North Korean labor with South Korean capital and managerial skills. Also on tap is the resumption of tourism projects that have brought large numbers of South Koreans to select locations in the north.

All of this has been met with deafening silence in the United States. Worse, the big Korea news this week is, once again, about what the perfidious North Koreans are doing to reinforce the Cold War, not dismantle it.

But maybe this silence is a good thing.

Much Ado about Missiles

A new study by Beyond Parallel, a project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, has made headlines with its revelations of a network of hidden missile bases in North Korea. The report identifies 13 out of 20 undeclared ballistic missile operating bases and, in the first of a projected series, provides considerable detail about one of these at Sakkanmol.

The report confirms what many skeptics have long maintained: North Korea is not serious about dismantling its nuclear complex. NBC’s article on the report includes this ominous quote from retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey:

It looks as if it is a political charade, and it’s a dangerous one. In the short term, North Korea is the most consequential threat to U.S. national security we’re facing….They have nuclear weapons, they have delivery systems, they are not going to denuclearize. So I think the outcome of all of this is we’re loosening the economic constraints on these people and we’re kidding ourselves.

That all sounds convincing. Except that all of this news coverage neglects to point out the obvious.

North Korea never promised to eliminate its missile program.

The negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have focused on the nuclear complex – just as the negotiations did between Iran and the United States that culminated in the 2015 nuclear deal. Missiles are not nukes. Even if an ultimate deal addresses Pyongyang’s missile program, the two sides are nowhere near signing an agreement. So, North Korea is not violating anything, not going back on its word, not engaging in any kind of charade. It’s not as if the United States has altered its security posture in the region, outside of cancelling a couple military exercises.

Moreover, this missile complex is nothing new. According to the Beyond Parallel report, the base at Sakkanmol hasn’t had any serious upgrade since 2011. True, it’s a secret base. But North Korea hasn’t provided an inventory of its nuclear or missile complex. Secrecy, as anyone in the CIA or NSA can tell you, is an indispensable part of military strategy. For a country that is so clearly outgunned like North Korea, secrecy is one of its asymmetric advantages. Indeed, no one knows if the country can deliver whatever nuclear weapons it might have.

The base at Sakkanmol, meanwhile, is for short-range missiles. So, the major target would be South Korea. But the South Korean government is not up in arms over the report. “There is nothing new,” said a government spokesman, since North Korea “has never signed any agreement, any negotiation that makes shutting down missile bases mandatory.”

The Beyond Parallel report contains much useful research. It’s the media coverage of the report that’s problematic. Journalists are missing the real news of the two Koreas dismantling Cold War structures on the peninsula in favor of information that reinforces the narrative that North Korea is ultimately untrustworthy.

How to Help Korea

Donald Trump is focused on getting a Nobel Peace Prize for nearly consummating his love affair with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The foreign policy community in Washington, DC — along with the U.S. media and punditry class — is focused on proving itself right that the current peace efforts are a chimera. Members of Trump’s administration, like National Security Adviser John Bolton, have adopted a wait-and-see attitude: They believe that Trump will eventually realize the folly of his overtures, which will create a policy vacuum that they will rush in to fill with their regime-change strategies.

Don’t expect much of a difference now that the Democrats control the House. The party has roundly criticized Trump’s summitry and has consistently pushed for more sanctions, not fewer.

In this dismal context, watching the two Koreas inch incrementally closer together is like sitting in the audience of a performance of Romeo and Juliet. You know the ending, and it’s far from happy.

So, is there any way of altering the current script to avoid a tragedy?

Here’s the good news: It wouldn’t take very much to push the U.S.-North Korean negotiations forward. All the Trump administration has to do is offer to reduce some economic sanctions in exchange for a specific ask, for instance an inventory of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and complex.

This might seem like Arms Control 101. Unfortunately, the U.S. position has been all-or-nothing, not give-and-take. That’s the subtle shift that has to take place before any further, substantial dismantlement of the Cold War on the Korean peninsula can take place. And given the pushback from the foreign policy community, Congress, and even members of Trump’s own administration, this shift will likely have to come from the president himself.

It’s a terrible thing to have to depend on Donald Trump for anything. But if the White House can reduce one of the principle barriers to inter-Korean reconciliation, then Koreans themselves can continue to change the facts on the ground — step by step, without international fanfare — in such a way that outsiders will have to follow the Korean lead rather than the other way around.

By the time journalists have figured everything out what’s going on, perhaps the two Koreas will have managed to end the Cold War, not just rhetorically but physically — and without getting permission from their patrons.

Instead of a preemptive attack, it will be preemptive peace. In this chaotic and increasingly frightening world, that will surely be something to celebrate.

Foreign Policy In Focus, November 14, 2018

Articles Featured Korea Security

North Korea: Nukes vs. War?

Nuclear weapons have held the world hostage for more than 70 years. Although they possess terrifying power and the world has come close to nuclear war on several occasions, these weapons have only been used twice, in 1945, by the United States against Japan.

Advocates of deterrence believe that nuclear weapons actually kept the peace during the Cold War. The United States and Soviet Union, according to this theory, did not attack each other directly because of the fear that one side or the other would launch an ICBM, the conflict would quickly escalate, and the world would go up in smoke.

Over the course of the nuclear era, there have been plenty of conventional wars. Those conflicts have left millions dead, injured many more, and created today’s unprecedented refugee crisis.

Nuclear weapons possess great potential evil. Conventional wars represent persistent, everyday evil.

The United States has expended a great deal of energy to prevent other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. It hasn’t eliminated its own arsenal, nor has it of late vigorously pursued arms control agreements with Russia that would achieve global disarmament any time soon. Meanwhile, the United States has initiated or supported a disproportionate number of wars around the world, including ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

In general, the United States has prioritized nuclear non-proliferation over the prevention of war.

That helps to explain the muted U.S. reactions to the recent Pyongyang summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. But it doesn’t make those reactions any less frustrating.

As a result of the third inter-Korean summit, the two countries have agreed to a remarkable set of security measures. The two Koreas will cease military exercises along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), establish a no-fly zone above the MDL, and establish a maritime peace zone around the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea. Even more dramatically, they announced a plan to turn the most visible symbol of inter-Korean division and hostility – the border area at the 38th parallel – into a peace zone, beginning with the withdrawal of 11 guard posts from the DMZ, the demilitarization of the Joint Security Area, and the creation of a joint team to recover remains within the zone.

And what was the predominant U.S. reaction to these momentous changes? Even though Kim Jon Un did make several proposals to move forward on nuclear disarmament, U.S. politicians and pundits focused on what was missing, namely unilateral moves before the United States reciprocates. These skeptics somehow expect North Korea to provide an inventory of the country’s nuclear capabilities, relinquish its existing weapons, or shut down its plutonium and highly enriched uranium processing facilities simply to show good faith and in the hopes that Washington will remove economic sanctions. In other words, the U.S. skeptics are not interested in the give-and-take of negotiations. They want some sign that North Korea is bending to pressure.

For instance, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) tweeted: “”Surprise, surprise: North Korea wants concessions from the U.S. for steps far short of denuclearization. Glad the admin has made no commitments. Maximum pressure campaign should proceed.”

His Republican colleague in the Senate, Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tweeted much the same thing: “While North Korea has stopped testing missiles and nuclear devices, they have NOT moved toward denuclearization.”

“Talk is cheap,” said Bruce Bennett of Rand Corporation. “What Washington has been looking for is action.”

The Trump administration has praised the results of the recent inter-Korean summit. But here, too, U.S. officials have talked about the need to advance the denuclearization agenda.

Obviously, the U.S. preoccupation with nuclear non-proliferation has blinded the foreign policy elite to what is ultimately a more profound development. The two Koreas are not waiting for a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953. They’re not relying on a U.S. declaration that hostilities have ended. They are actively dismantling the very mechanisms of war on the Korean peninsula.

I don’t necessarily believe that nuclear deterrence kept the peace during the Cold War. First of all, the nuclear powers were exceptionally lucky not to have blown each other up. Second, there were plenty of hot wars during that period, including the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and several of these wars could have escalated to the use of nuclear weapons.

For these and other reasons, I think it’s important to push for nuclear disarmament. Nuclear weapons, even if they haven’t been used in more than 70 years, are extraordinarily dangerous.

But ultimately, the most important task is to prevent war – to prevent the circumstances that would give rise to the potential use of nuclear weapons. In this way, the two Koreas have gotten the order correct. They are focusing on dismantling war structures before the talks on nuclear weapons have really started.

This is a profound lesson for Americans. Instead of seeing the inter-Korean talks as a prelude to the “more important” discussions on nuclear weapons, the United States should see the denuclearization negotiations as supporting Korean efforts to end war on the peninsula.

As long as Washington’s preoccupation with nukes goes hand in hand with conflict reduction between the two Koreas, the non-proliferation agenda is part of the solution. But if denuclearization gets in the way of peace – if squabbling over the particulars of North Korea’s nuclear program disrupts the progress North and South have made on reducing tensions – then it’s part of the problem.

Hankyoreh, October 1, 2018