President Trump’s historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un follows another historic meeting only weeks earlier between Kim and South Korean leader Moon Jae-in, where the two leaders agreed to work to formally end the Korean War. After Tuesday’s summit in Singapore, Trump called the Korean War “an extremely bloody conflict” and expressed hope that the war would soon formally end. For more, we speak with University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings, author of several books on Korea, including Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History and North Korea: Another Country.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. We are now joined by Bruce Cumings, professor of history at University of Chicago, author of a number of books on Korea, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, North Korea: Another Country.
So, you have been following Korea for decades. Talk about the statement that was signed today, what you were most surprised by. And is this actually continuation of the past or the first real break with the past, Professor Cumings?
BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, I think the first principle about a new relationship between North Korea and the US is very important. It’s a recognition of the DPRK. The US, 72 years ago, refused to recognize Kim Il-sung’s rise to power in February 1946. That was his effective rise to central power. The US denounced it as a Soviet ploy. And ever since, the US has refused to recognize North Korea. North Korea has an ideology that is pinned on projecting its own dignity and wanting respect from other countries. So I think that the first principle of that statement is a very important one, if it’s implemented.
Second, you know, Donald Trump has this kind of innocence. He looks at the Korean problem with innocent eyes. He says that it’s ridiculous that there hasn’t been a peace treaty signed, you know, shortly after the war ended in 1953 or sometime in the last 60 years. And he’s right about that.
But I agree with Tim Shorrock that the most stunning thing was for him to talk about the war exercises being provocative, not to mention stopping them or at least suspending them. When Barack Obama was president and there was a particular crisis involving North Korean missile or bomb tests, he would send nuclear-capable bombers to drop dummy atomic bombs on Korean islands. As Tim said, the war games often involved attempts to knock over the North Korean regime, plans to send the Marines in at the port of Wonsan to march on Pyongyang in the early stages of a war and the use of nuclear weapons in the Korean theater. So, I think it was very important that these war games were canceled. But it’s also quite revealing of somebody who doesn’t know a whole lot about the situation—namely, Donald Trump—looking at the situation and saying, “Wait a minute, this is not only expensive, but it’s also very provocative.”
I also agree with Christine that the theatrics of the summit were very important to see the DPRK flag right next to the American flag, to hear Donald Trump describe North Korea’s leader as a smart man, a great man, all of this. I know there are all sorts of detractors in the United States for Trump’s statements like that, but he clearly is a person who believes in hands-on, getting-to-know-you relationships. And this seems to have worked out well.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bruce Cumings, I wanted to ask you, for a lot of our viewers and listeners who don’t know the history of this relationship, could you talk some about the level of destruction that the United States visited on North Korea during the Korean War and also why, in the face of all the changes that have occurred in Asia—normalization of relations with China, normalization with Vietnam—why Korea remained as this one area where the United States held onto the Cold War, in a sense?
BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, to take the second question first—it’s an easy question to answer—you have to have a South Korean government that wants better relations with the North and better relations between Pyongyang and Washington. And we didn’t have that for nine years. But when President Moon Jae-in came in, he immediately said he was going to engage with North Korea. And as Christine mentioned, he’s been really a very important guiding hand in bringing the US and North Korea together. So, in that context of a receptive South Korean president, which you often don’t have and often had not had, things are moving forward, not for the first time, because this happened back in the ’90s when Kim Dae-jung came to power and was also an engager with North Korea. But Moon Jae-in is very experienced. He was chief of staff to Roh Moo-hyun, another progressive president. He knows what he’s doing. And so I think that is the primary reason that the US is now in an engagement process with North Korea.
What every North Korean knows is that a family member was killed during the Korean War, and usually by incendiary bombing that the US carried out with no limits. Basically, the apparatus of firebombing that was used to level German and Japanese cities during World War II was redirected to North Korea, which had 15 or 16 cities of modest size, and they were all just wiped off the face of the Earth. Official US Air Force statistics show that the percentage of destruction, sometimes 100 percent, in North Korean cities was higher, on average, than the percentage of destruction in Germany and Japan during World War II. Plus, napalm was splashed all over the place. Churchill even had to send a cable to Eisenhower in 1953 saying, essentially, “When we invented napalm, we had no idea it was going to be splashed all over civilians.” Historians estimate that about 70 percent of the casualties in the Korean War were civilian, compared to about 40 percent in Vietnam. So, it was, as President Trump said, a very, very destructive war. And every North Korean knows all about it.