It’s strange to say, but there is an upside to the goat rodeo way in which President Donald Trump has canceled, for the moment, his North Korea summit. No president has done a better job of making clear that the United States is an impediment to peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Is this a disaster? It could be, because anything Trump touches can turn to nuclear ash. But the summit cancellation — or postponement or revival or who knows what to call it, given Trump’s garbled moods — has the prospect of being useful if South Korea and North Korea seize the moment to take matters into their own hands, improving their ties despite the toxic clown show in the Oval Office.
“Ultimately, this cannot just go back to how it was before the Winter Olympics,” tweeted Abraham Denmark, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia. “North Korea is in a stronger position, Kim has far more legitimacy, China is more engaged, South Korea has invested a lot into diplomacy, and the U.S. role is more circumscribed.”
While officials in North Korea and South Korea were apparently unaware of the cancellation until Trump announced it, South Korean President Moon Jae-in indicated that his reconciliation efforts would move ahead (and who knows, maybe the summit will move ahead, too). “The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and ensuring a permanent peace are historic tasks that cannot be delayed or forsaken,” Moon said after an emergency session of his national security council.
This is an emperor-has-no-clothes moment, but not only in the sense of Trump and coherent thinking. For more than a century, the Korean Peninsula has been the unlucky target of more foreign intervention than arguably any other spot on the planet (which, I know, is saying a lot). Trump has shown just how capricious and prejudicial the actions of outsiders can be, doing little to serve the interests of the 75 million people who live there.
From 1910 to 1945, Korea was a Japanese colony. Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names and work in Japanese mines, while women were forced into prostitution for Japanese soldiers. After the Japanese empire collapsed at the end of World War II, the Korean Peninsula was divided into American and Russian zones along the 38th parallel — Koreans had no choice or role in that. In the Korean War that broke out in 1950, more than 5 million soldiers and civilians were killed – a calamity of historic proportions. Most of the slaughter occurred in North Korea, where the U.S. dropped more bombs than during its entire Pacific campaign against Japan.
While North Korea has been understandably condemned for its nuclear weapons program, guess who started the nuclear race? It was the U.S. that brought nuclear weapons to South Korea in 1958 and kept them there for more than three decades (the last ones were removed in 1991). “The presence of those American weapons probably motivated the North Koreans to accelerate development of their own nuclear weapons,” noted Walter Pincus. “The Seoul government still remains under the American nuclear umbrella — and the impetus for Kim Jong Un to have his own remains.”
Emphasizing this malignancy-from-without is not to ignore the unhelpful ways that Korea’s own leaders have contributed to the troubles. There was Kim Il Sung, who built the north into an achingly brutal dictatorship that was continued by his son, Kim Jong Il, and his son, Kim Jong Un (the current supreme leader). In the south, there was the U.S.-backed Syngman Rhee and the military leaders who succeeded him. While turning the south into an economic powerhouse, the virulently anti-communist generals (Park Chung Hee, Chun Doo Hwan, and Roh Tae Woo) suppressed democracy at gunpoint. But what the leaders of the north and south have done – what they were able to do – was a direct consequence of the policies and interests of Beijing, Moscow, and Washington, D.C.
And there’s a critical element missing from much of the U.S. discourse on North Korea: the 25 million North Koreans. I lived in South Korea for three years and visited North Korea on one bizarre occasion long ago, so I find it hard to forget that actual people are affected by what the U.S. does. We obsess about Kim Jong Un and his nuclear weapons. While that is understandable – nukes are not to be taken lightly, of course — there is little discussion of an issue right-wingers profess to be deeply concerned about: the well-being of the ordinary people who are brutally oppressed by the Kim regime. What is best for them? The hawks do not really care. “Stick to the status quo,” Bret Stephens memorably wrote in the New York Times. “It’s served us well enough for 65 years.”
It’s unsustainable to argue any longer that further isolating and punishing North Korea is the best way forward. That policy has been tried for most of the last few decades and guess what — the Kim regime now has a functional nuclear deterrent and shows no signs of collapsing under economic or political strains. What the hawks of the U.S. establishment wish for — more sanctions, more isolation, more threats — is the classic definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Moon, of South Korea, clearly realizes that forging a better relationship with his detestable counterparts in the north is preferable to trying to isolate them out of existence (which has not worked) or going to war against them (which would be another calamity). The clarifying advantage of Trump’s tween antics is that Moon and Kim and the rest of the world now have ample evidence the White House is not a helpful partner, or even sane. This is not the breakthrough we wished for, but to borrow an idea from Donald Rumsfeld, this is the breakthrough we have.