Is Rapprochement With North Korea Merely a Midsummer’s Dream?

From the November/December 2018 PNL #863

adapted by Diane Swords from a presentation by Prof. Frederick Carriere

This piece was adapted by Diane Swords from a presentation by Prof. Frederick Carriere at ArtRage Gallery on October 9 sponsored by the Beyond War and Militarism Committee.


How the Korean War Transformed the US

Unlike the Viet Nam War, the Korean War didn’t brand a generation and is forgotten by the general public. Yet Bruce Cumings, the leading American expert on the Korean War, argues that it was an occasion of fundamental transformation for the US. This is embodied in the establishment of US military bases all over the globe, the deployment of a large standing army, and the creation of a national security state at home.


The military had been a negligible factor in the US prior to the Cold War era. The Korean War gave rise to the deeply entrenched US military-industrial complex. Since the “open door” policy in 1900, Washington’s goal in Northeast Asia has been to ensure free access to its markets. The US wanted indigenous governments strong enough to maintain independence and public order, but not strong enough to oppose Western influence. With the rise of China and increased wavering in the US about its global commitments, however, a new order is developing today in Northeast Asia.


The mantra “all options are on the table,” often spoken by President Trump, reflects an assumption that there’s always a military solution to conflicts resulting from the changing dynamics in the region. Clearly, war could come again to Korea, and almost did in June 1994 (and some say also in early 2018) over US concerns about North Korea’s nuclear facilities. President Trump’s address to the UN in September illustrated the tension between the multilateral, globalist policy vision of recent decades and his “America First” impulses. By opening this debate about the United States’ changing role in the world, as seen in his Korea policy, Trump challenges us to ponder if he has a grand strategy to match.


A Trump Achievement?

President Trump habitually characterizes all his undertakings in superlatives that are usually discounted by all but his devoted fans. His North Korea policy is a striking exception, however, as he has accomplished what no other American president was able (or willing) to do. However, his role was necessary but not sufficient to the peace process that’s unfolding on the Korean Peninsula.


It is the leaders of North and South Korea who played and are playing the most critical roles in this process, and its successful outcome is primarily in their hands. The importance of this clarification is to dispel the misunderstanding that coercion or fear has initiated the peace process and is critical to its continuation. In particular, President Trump’s threats of raining down “fire and fury” on North Korea were laughable. Even the “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign—which is not just an idle threat—is more of a negative than a positive factor in “getting to yes” in peace negotiations. What the US generally fails to grasp is that they are the ones who need to be motivated to engage in good faith negotiations, not the North Koreans.


What got the ball rolling this year was the juxtaposition of committed “engagers” in both North and South Korea (Kim and Moon) and the symbolic pretext of the Olympic Games. Both Pyongyang and Seoul also took a cue from the stroking of Trump by Abe and Xi who gained dividends from not overreacting to his “sound and fury signifying nothing.” In the end, it gradually became clear to Trump that there are no viable military options for untying the Gordian Knot that is Korea. So, when the “shiny object” of a summit meeting with Kim Jong Un was dangled—a first in US presidential history— predictably, Trump immediately grasped it. If anything, efforts by the political establishment to dissuade him against this unprecedented step only deepened his resolve to forge ahead.


Official Reactions to These Initiatives

Korea experts largely approved, but the “functional specialists” within the Beltway were almost universally appalled by this disregard of the rules of the security establishment. Unlike Obama, who was dissuaded from acting on his pledge to meet with Kim Jong Un, Trump does not yield to the persuasion of his advisers to conform to establishment views.


Blowback Potential in the US and on the Korean Peninsula

The US is focused on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program above all else, but North Korea prioritizes an end-of-war declaration and the establishment of new relations. Seoul wants quick action on joint economic projects to push for reconciliation with North Korea, but Washington is demanding denuclearization before anything else happens. For the US, its troop presence in South Korea is not just a deterrent toward North Korea. It is also a military footprint in Asia that’s part of a grand strategy of American hegemony. China is a challenge to the United States’ military presence in Asia that will become more formidable as China becomes the world’s biggest economy and modernizes its military.


South Korea’s Moon is returning the country to the roots of its post-authoritarian, pragmatic, modern progressivism of the 1990s. Many of the same people who destroyed previous US-North Korean agreements, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, are at the peak of their power now. South Korea expects the US to hold off on its demand for an inventory of North Korea’s nuclear weapons until more trust has been established. The dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities should be accepted in exchange for an end-of-war declaration to break the stalemate in US talks with North Korea.


Recent controversy over the US-spearheaded United Nations Command (UNC) highlights the chasm between Washington and Seoul. US efforts to revitalize the UNC lie more in their strategic interest in Northeast Asia than the threat from North Korea, according to an anonymous former top official. The US seems to intend to use the UNC for combat purposes along with its current mission overseeing the armistice. This entails incorporating more US allies as participants in war games on the Korean Peninsula. The main reason behind revitalizing the UNC is the envisioned transfer of operational control to Seoul around 2023.


Back-to-the-Future: Declaration of Amity and a Nuclear Free Zone?

Analysts and the media routinely note that there is no agreement between Trump and Kim over the meaning of “denuclearization” as the primary goal of the peace process. The concern is heightened by that fact that the North Koreans always say they are committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, not North Korea (only). The ambiguity in the definition of this term, then, boils down to a stratagem either to keep the focus solely on North Korea (US) or to avoid doing so (North Korea). The US and North Korea have been stuck in a rut since they began negotiating nuclear-related issues.


A Solution?

A solution would be for the two Koreas to reaffirm the 1991 Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation agreements; the 1992 Denuclearization agreement; and for the US to support Kim’s economic projects. Kim aspires to be a great economic reformer. The United States should help him, because that’s the best way to sustain progress toward denuclearization. Kim announced a “new strategic line” at a high-level party meeting in March 2013, calling for “dual progress” on developing a nuclear deterrent and the civilian economy. The international community, and Washington, have fixated on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and haven’t paid attention to Mr. Kim’s broader strategic intentions. Kim wants North Korea to become a normal East Asian economy, and catch up with and integrate into the region. It’s in everyone’s interest to help him do so. Helping Kim achieve his project of economic development is the best chance of giving him a reason to give up his nuclear weapons.



Frederick is a research professor of political science and the director of the Korean Peninsula Affairs Center in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. Diane works for nuclear abolition with SPC’s Nuclear Free World Committee, and facilitates Intergroup Dialogue at Syracuse University and beyond.