The Korean peace process


Shirley Wegner,
Aerial View #13. 2016, Pigmented inkjet print, 1/5. IMAGE/Shirley Wegner

American foreign policy hasn’t done any real thinking in two years

In late June, just a few weeks after Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un shook hands and watched a propaganda film about themselves in Singapore, several news outlets excitedly reported that the American President had been duped. Their source was 38 North, a nonpartisan website that publishes North Korea analysis and that had found, through examining satellite imagery, that North Korea was continuing to expand and improve the infrastructure at its nuclear research facility in Yongbyon. “Hold the champagne on North Korea, President Trump,” chided a Washington Post editorial headline. NBC News described Trump’s decision to suspend military training exercises on the Korean peninsula in the wake of the Singapore summit as “a major concession,” one that didn’t look so good in light of this new satellite imagery. On the basis of these editorials and the 38 North satellite imagery analysis, a consensus soon emerged: the Kim regime had been negotiating in bad faith, and Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would have to respond accordingly. “The observed activity appears inconsistent with a North Korean intent to abandon its nuclear weapons programs,” a North Korea wonk from the Heritage Foundation told NBC. “There seems little reason to continue expansion plans if the regime intended to dismantle them as would be required under a denuclearization agreement.”

Here, however, is the second paragraph of the 38 North report itself:

Continued work at the Yongbyon facility should not be seen as having any relationship to North Korea’s pledge to denuclearize. The North’s nuclear cadre can be expected to proceed with business as usual until specific orders are issued from Pyongyang.

In the report, 38 North went out of its way to describe the Yongbyon improvements as unremarkable and even expected, rather than as the harbinger of a mushroom cloud over Seattle. Of course Kim would continue to build up his nuclear infrastructure until real negotiations began?—?you want to enter negotiations in the strongest possible bargain-ing position, and North Korea’s status as a nuclear power is the only reason it has a bargaining position of any kind.

But these considerations did not find their way into the media’s view of events. At every step of the peace process that began to unfold between North and South Korea in the spring, American commentators have claimed that the whole endeavor is bound to fail, and in so doing increased the likelihood that it actually will. There could be no more certain proof of the media’s inability to learn from the mistakes it made justifying the Iraq war than the spectacle of editorial boards demonizing Kim as a “madman” during a period of heightened nuclear tensions, or of talking heads preemptively belittling the US government’s efforts to broker a peace agreement that the US government itself helped make impossible half a century ago. The Korean peace process is a historic opportunity, and it will have been a historic opportunity even if it comes to nothing. Of course, it could come to far worse than nothing. If war breaks out in the wake of the collapse of the peace process, the American media will have blood on its hands, just as it did beginning on March 20, 2003.

Those involved with the grunt work of maintaining the American foreign policy consensus are working quietly to prevent President Trump from meeting with Kim again.Tweet

At the time of this writing, negotiations have stalled. The Trump administration has repeatedly promised a second summit between Trump and Kim, but even the most basic details (date, location) have yet to materialize. John Bolton and US generals have rediscovered the language of American dominance. Trump announced and then quickly canceled a trip to North Korea by Pompeo, who was heading to Pyongyang for a fourth round of talks with North Korean officials. Those officials were angry because the US has so far been unwilling to consider bringing the Korean War to a formal end: while armed hostilities between North and South (plus the US and China) ended with the adoption of the Korean Armistice Agreement, a formal peace treaty was never signed. (In an exquisite example of the hairsplitting often involved in diplomatic negotiations, the most the US has offered so far is to issue a statement acknowledging the objective reality that armed conflict has ceased.) Pompeo did meet with Kim for a two-hour discussion in October, but reports suggest their conversation was merely an attempt to schedule the still-elusive second summit, rather than an effort to hammer out the details of any deal. Since then, North Korean officials, though careful not to criticize Trump directly, have registered their displeasure with some of his positions, including what they perceive as a lack of urgency on his part to get something done. Most ominously, according to a report from the website Tokyo Business Today, national security professionals and administration officials, those involved with the grunt work of maintaining the American foreign policy consensus, are working quietly to prevent President Trump from meeting with Kim again. They are worried that he will give away too much?—?i.e., that a second summit would go too well for their liking.

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