On March 8, 2018, South Korea’s National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong stepped outside the White House to convey a message his government received from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of his “eagerness to meet” with Trump “as soon as possible” during a meeting in Pyongyang days before. President Trump was quick to congratulate himself for this breakthrough by telling an ABC reporter about a “major statement” regarding North Korea: “Hopefully, you will give me credit.” He later tweeted, “Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!”
Outside the West Wing, Chung told reporters that Trump’s pressure on North Korea paved the way for the diplomatic breakthrough, saying, “I explained to President Trump that his leadership and his maximum pressure policy, together with international solidarity, brought us to this juncture.”
Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, however, is really the Obama administration’s Strategic Patience 2.0 plan, which utterly failed in forcing North Korea to denuclearize. In fact, North Korea made its greatest nuclear advances during Obama’s watch, testing four nuclear weapons from 2008 to 2016. Likewise, since Trump took office, North Korea has intensified its drive to achieve an effective deterrent from a US pre-emptive strike.
The Trump administration’s North Korea policy contains three pillars: aggressive military posturing, including intensifying the scale and frequency of the US-South Korea war drills; forcing other countries to cut off diplomatic ties with North Korea; and more stringent US and UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, including shifting from “smart sanctions” that target the North Korean regime and its missile and nuclear program toward broader sanctions that target the country’s economy and civilian population.
In 2017, amid unabashed threats by President Trump to “totally destroy” North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” and the massive movement of strategic assets to the Asia Pacific region, including on US bases in Guam and Okinawa, North Korea tested over 20 ballistic missiles. These missiles flew the farthest distance that the country’s missiles have ever flown. North Korea also tested a hydrogen bomb in 2017, its most powerful ever, demonstrating the country’s capability to strike the United States with a nuclear warhead.
If anything, the force behind this diplomatic breakthrough is the masterful diplomacy of South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Moon was elected in May 2017 after the Candlelight Revolution where over 16 million South Koreans — one in every three South Korean — sustained weekly protests for five months and succeeded in ousting the neoconservative President Park Geun-hye for corruption and worsening inter-Korean relations. Park touted the US hardline stance of refusing dialogue with North Korea until the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” (CVID) of its nuclear program. When North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2016, Park shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint economic zone created with South Korean capital and energy and which employed over 50,000 North Korean workers. Kaesong was the last vestige of the Sunshine Policy era, a decade of warming inter-Korean reconciliation that lasted from 1998-2008 under liberal South Korean presidents. Moon was chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, the last proponent of the Sunshine era, so he entered into the Blue House understanding the failures of engagement policies, but also their unfilled promise. Although he ran primarily on domestic issues such as corruption and inequality, he called for a new foreign policy built on dialogue, telling veteran journalist Tim Shorrock on the eve of his election, “I will do whatever it takes to help settle peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
Soon after his election, Moon delivered a speech last July in Berlin where he stressed the importance of Seoul taking the lead in diplomacy, to serve as a bridge between Pyongyang and Washington. According to North Korea scholar Ruediger Frank, Moon “offered the North Koreans a peace treaty to end the Korean War in exchange for denuclearization — without talking about preconditions.” Contrary to his pro-engagement predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, Moon has stressed the process, not the actual detailed plans. Again, Moon has emphasized that de-nuclearization is the long-term goal of a peace process, not the pre-conditions for dialogue. Ahead of Trump’s announcement to meet with Kim, Moon reiterated to political leaders in Seoul that “the dismantlement of [North Korea’s] nuclear program is the end goal.”
The Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, afforded Moon the opportunity to dramatically reverse the escalating tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. (In November 2017, many analysts predicted that we were facing up to a 50 percent chance of going to war.) Given Seoul’s tremendous fear over Washington’s unpredictability, Moon seized the window to invite North Korean athletes to participate in the Winter Olympics, and in response, Kim Jong Un reached back by announcing in his New Year’s Day speech that North Korea would consider participating. That began the rapid series of talks at Panmunjom in the DMZ, thawing a decade of frozen relations between North and South Korea.
As more and more North Koreans continued to cross the DMZ, from the illustrious women’s Moranbong Band leader Hyon Song Wol to the North Korean women’s hockey team, North Korean people became more real and humanized to the world, especially to South Koreans. But the real gamechanger was during the Olympics Ceremony when the two Koreas marched together carrying a One Korea flag. The entire audience of 30,000 people got on their feet to cheer them on, according to the American Friends Service Committee’s Asia Advocacy Coordinator Dan Jasper, as did millions of people around the world shedding tears of joy for Korean unity. There were exceptions, including Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose refusal to stand for Koreans served as a sobering reminder of the tragic role that the US and Japan played in the last century that led to the colonization, division and war on the Korean Peninsula. In 1905, the US and Japan signed the secret Taft-Katsura agreed memorandum in which Washington and Tokyo agreed not to meddle in each other’s affairs as the United States colonized Hawaii and the Philippines and Japan colonized Korea. It was just bad form, and a sobering reminder to both Koreas that they better get their acts together and quickly sort out their differences to ensure that Korea is not again devastated by a new Korean War.
In that sense, Trump’s “maximum pressure” did play a role in where we are today, unintentionally. The current diplomatic opening wasn’t prompted by US policies of squeezing North Korea until it fell on its knees. That’s not how North Korea operates, as we saw during the 1990s famine when up to a million perished. (Russian President Vladimir Putin alluded to this devastation last year when he said Kim Jong Un would have his people “eat grass” before giving up North Korea’s nuclear weapons.) Rather, it was the US threat of “preventive war” or a “bloody nose” on North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites, which would undoubtedly lead to a counter-retaliation by North Korea on the 87 bases and 28,500 US troops in South Korea that compelled the two Koreas to sit down and dialogue. The US Congressional Research Service estimates that the opening days of a conventional military conflict would kill 300,000 lives and up to 25 million with nuclear weapons. The prospect of a US unilateral action prompted Moon to say, “No one should be allowed to decide on a military action on the Korean Peninsula without South Korean agreement.”
As a result of talks last week between Kim Jong Un and a high-level South Korean delegation to Pyongyang, the two Koreas agreed to resume the military hotline, a communication line between the North and South Korean militaries that had been cut off during the Park administration. They also agreed to meet in late April to continue progress in reconciliation, and to send a delegation of artists and taekwondo team to Pyongyang. North Korea made a commitment to have genuine talks with the United States. But the biggest announcement, which was a long-held position, was North Korea’s promise to give up its nuclear weapons program as long as they were assured a security guarantee and hostile threats ceased from the United States. The South Korean Blue House affirmed that Kim “made it clear that [North Korea] would have no reason to keep nuclear weapons if the military threat to the North was eliminated and its security guaranteed.” North Korea also agreed to freeze its missile and nuclear tests and gave up demanding that the United States and South Korea forego its joint war drills as a precondition for dialogue.
North Korea has made many concessions, from agreeing to denuclearize if threats are eliminated, to halting its missile and nuclear program as long as talks proceeded. However, instead of supporting the prospect of a diplomatic breakthrough and a long-term resolution of the longest US war, the Washington establishment has greeted the news with skepticism and continuing dehumanizing tropes about North Korea which make any kind of diplomatic engagement with the Kim regime impossible. Where there is greatest concern, however, is the diplomatic capacity of the Trump administration, since it still lacks an ambassador to South Korea following Victor Cha’s pulled nomination for allegedly opposing the “bloody nose” approach, and recently lost its most recent senior North Korea expert at the State Department, Joseph Yun. With the recent firing of Rex Tillerson, the most ardent advocate of a diplomatic approach within the Trump administration to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, and his replacement by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who has openly suggested that the intelligence agency was plotting regime change, it is hard to know what could come of the upcoming Trump-Kim summit.
While many fear, legitimately, that conditions could rapidly deteriorate should meetings go terribly between Kim and Trump, we should all find solace in what is going well: relations between North and South Korea. The two Koreas will meet in another high-level summit in April before the US-North Korea summit, and Moon has made clear no unilateral action will be taken by the United States without Seoul’s intervention. But to achieve what will hopefully lead to the eventual nuclear-free Korean peninsula, including the halting of US-South Korea war drills with B-2 bombers and a US nuclear umbrella over South Korea, will require the signing of a peace treaty to replace the 1953 Armistice Agreement, a ceasefire signed by military commanders from North Korea, China and the United States that forced both sides to put down their guns but never formally resolved the Korean War as promised. And that will take mobilized political will by peace movements in the United States, along with those in the 16 countries that participated in the Korean War under the UN Command, to push for the long-promised peace treaty. Imagine, Korea could be the key to world peace and a world free of nuclear weapons.