In his signature braggadocio way, President Trump made history over the weekend when he met North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un at the military demarcation line dividing North and South Korea and stepped over the cement border and onto North Korean soil, the first standing U.S. president to ever do so. After walking 20 steps, Trump returned back over the line with Kim by his side where they met South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
As he departed the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), Trump announced that working-level meetings would be established over the next few weeks led by Special Representative Stephen Biegun. While we don’t yet know what was agreed to, it was likely some combination of offering North Korea relief of sanctions or security assurances. On Sunday, The New York Times reported that a deal was offered which amounted to “a nuclear freeze, one that essentially enshrines the status quo, and tacitly accepts the North as a nuclear power.”
Democrats — including North Korea watchers, media pundits and politicians — have issued an overwhelmingly negative response to the meeting. Yet as progressives, must we not recognize the importance of taking steps to end the 69-year-old Korean War? That war, which claimed more than 4 million lives, was temporarily halted by a ceasefire, not with a peace agreement. As I wrote last year, “A peace treaty would end the state of war between the United States and North Korea, taking the threat of a military conflict off the table.”
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This weekend’s summit restarted dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang, made possible by a change in the Trump administration’s position. Earlier this year, at the Hanoi summit, the Trump administration demanded the unilateral disarmament of North Korea in exchange for a promise for future prosperity. This John Bolton-style approach was antithetical to peace. Meanwhile, North Korea, which had made an offer of dismantling the heart of its nuclear program and imposing a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, had requested a partial lifting of sanctions. Neither side could come to an agreement, and with the exception of love letters between Trump and Kim, relations remained frozen between the Cold War enemies.
What triggered the seemingly spontaneous decision by Trump to meet Kim at the DMZ over the weekend, a decision he announced in typical Trump fashion by tweet? A likely bet is the combination of a deadline and the 2020 elections. Kim gave a speech at the Supreme People’s Assembly where he set an end-of-year deadline for Washington to shift its stance; otherwise, North Korea would likely return to testing, which would not bode well for Trump’s 2020 re-election bid as he has been touting his successful aversion of a nuclear war with North Korea.
The lynchpin was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first visit ever to North Korea 10 days ago where he affirmed Beijing’s longstanding alliance with Pyongyang. China fought alongside North Korea during the Korean War and was also a signatory to the 1953 Armistice Agreement with North Korea and the United States on behalf of the U.N. Command. As the largest trading partner to North Korea, China holds the keys to the U.S.’s “maximum pressure” campaign — which aims to strangle North Korea economically through massive sanctions (in addition to issuing military threats and forcing other countries to cut off political ties). And given that Washington and Beijing are in a trade war, China is not in the mood to cooperate. Furthermore, China has always taken the historic position that the United States needed to provide security assurances to North Korea and has long advocated for replacing the Armistice with a permanent peace agreement.
Not only is Washington’s maximum pressure campaign failing to achieve its aim of forcing North Korea’s denuclearization, the Trump administration is facing a public relations nightmare as the humanitarian crisis in North Korea reaches a boiling point. There is widespread consensus among the humanitarian community that sanctions are impeding the ability of aid agencies and NGOs to provide life-saving medicine, food and materials to the most vulnerable in North Korea. According to a May 2019 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program, 40 percent of North Koreans are in dire need of food aid, in part due to sanctions. They’re also hurting industries like textiles, which employs possibly hundreds of thousands of workers, of which 98 percent are women. This has compelled the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, to say, “In my view, the sanctions regime is, in fact, having a detrimental impact on the livelihood of the North Koreans.” Quintana advocates for gradually lifting deleterious sanctions, which, he says, “shouldn’t be used as a punitive instrument.”
While South Koreans across the political spectrum cheered on Trump’s meeting with Kim, many U.S. Democrats were quick to condemn the summit. Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “Our President shouldn’t be squandering American influence on photo ops and exchanging love letters with a ruthless dictator. Instead, we should be dealing with North Korea through principled diplomacy that promotes US security, defends our allies, and upholds human rights.”
It’s true that diplomacy is the answer, but dismissing the current path as a photo op is not useful to that goal. The truth is that President Obama squandered eight years through his failed “strategic patience” initiative, while North Korea tested five nuclear weapons under his watch and perfected its long-range missile program.
We should rightfully attack Trump on all of his brutal and devastating policies, but when it comes to North Korea, meeting Kim and negotiating a pragmatic approach toward achieving denuclearization through a parallel process toward peace and normalized relations is the best way to advance all our security.
President Jimmy Carter, who helped defuse the first nuclear crisis in 1994 that froze North Korea’s nuclear program, said ending the Korean War is “the only way to ensure true security for both Korean and American people.”
Not all Democrats took umbrage with Trump’s diplomatic overtures toward Kim. California Bay Area Rep. Ro Khanna told Fox News, “I support the president’s initiative. And, as a Democrat in the United States Congress, I will do everything I can to see it succeed.” Khanna proposed a roadmap toward achieving denuclearization, including replacing the Armistice with a peace agreement. Under his leadership, Khanna has introduced a congressional resolution, H.Res. 152, calling for a formal end to the Korean War. It now has 34 co-sponsors, including progressive champions like Representatives Barbara Lee, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Pramila Jayapal, as well as the first Korean American Democrat in Congress, Andy Kim.
Progressives should embrace a real antiwar position and throw their support behind ending the Korean War.