After months of off-and-on blusterous exchanges between President Trump and the North Korean leader, North Korea reached out directly to the South Korean president requesting direct diplomatic talks. Subsequently, Kim Jong-un “ordered the reopening of a hotline with south Korea’s leaders – bringing the biggest thaw in relations between the two Koreas in years,” according to Democracy Now!
Arrangements are underway for a meeting between the two governments in Pyeongchang, South Korea, near the DMZ, on Tuesday January 9th. Meanwhile, this past Thursday, the United States and South Korea agreed to delay military exercises in the area until after the Winter Olympics, which are being hosted by South Korea.
One of the foremost experts on North Korea, Bruce Cumings was interviewed by Amy Goodman and clarified what the North Korean leader and his government have actually said about its nuclear arsenal and why they may feel they’re in a good place to make a conciliatory gesture toward the South:
BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, it’s very important, and particularly the tone of Kim Jong-un’s statement, which was very conciliatory toward the South and was followed up by a high official who was even more conciliatory, talking about North Korea’s hopes for the South Korean Winter Olympics going well. And, of course, Kim Jong-un offered to send a delegation to the Olympics. This is in great contrast to, for example, the 1988 Olympics, which the North Koreans tried to disrupt with terrorist attacks. So, it’s a very good sign.
And I would add that Kim Jong-un did say he had a big button with a lot of nuclear weapons, but he very clearly said that North Korean nuclear weapons are for defensive purposes and would not be used unless North Korea was attacked. And secondly, he said something that North Korean officials have been saying for the last six months without a lot of attention. And that is words to the effect that their nuclear program is nearly completed, which would mean they don’t have to test so much. They tested a great deal in 2017, particularly missiles, and then a very large H-bomb test last September. So, I think, on all three counts, this was generally a welcome statement, a conciliatory statement.
While it is a good sign for the moment that North and South Korea have agreed to talks, no one should be naive enough to assume that Washington policymakers will simply allow peace to break out on the Korean peninsula, even if that is what all parties who live there want. In response to these developments, Aaron Mate (who is doing excellent work) at the Real News Network interviewed journalist Tim Shorrock, who has reported on the Koreas for decades and lived in the area, for his insight into these latest developments. The following excerpt is insightful:
It’s a very good sign. It’s a very good sign that North and South Korea have opened this communication line and then on Tuesday, they’re going to talk because North Korea has, you know, that Kim Jong-un said in his January 1st speech, that North Korea would be interested in sending a delegation to the Olympics, which are going to happen in February in South Korea.
They’re going to talk about that and hopefully, it will lead to some other kinds of negotiations between the two sides. I think it’s very hopeful, but I don’t think the United States has much to do with it. If you read the official line on this in the New York Times and the mainstream press, and you read these quotes they bring up from Republican and Democratic foreign policy people, there’s a lot of disinterest in this. There’s a thinking that South Korea is sort of operating on its own, as if it’s not a real independent country. That’s a real danger here.
AARON MATÉ: Well, Tim, one of those quotes, I’m going to read to you is from Daniel Russel, speaking to the New York Times. He was a former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration. He says, “It is fine for the South Koreans to take the lead, but if they don’t have the U.S. behind them, they won’t get far with North Korea. If the South Koreans are viewed as running off the leash, it will exacerbate tensions within the alliance.”
That’s not Trump’s Twitter account, that is a former Obama administration official, talking about South Koreans as “running off the leash.” What is he referring to there?
TIM SHORROCK: Well, he and most other national security people in Washington, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, basically see South Korea as an appendage of the United States. And South Korea is on a tight leash, the U.S. basically, controls South Korea. It’s a very illuminating comment I think. Extremely arrogant. It just underscores the arrogance of America towards both Koreas since 1945.
Daniel Russel, of course, he’s also the same guy who, during the Obama administration, said if Kim Jong-un obtains super weapons, he will die instantly. Obama and his people made similar threats against North Korea. They just didn’t do it quite as loudly, like on Twitter, that Trump has done.
That’s what I’m talking about. That’s sort of underscoring this … The U.S. thinks that, well, South Korea can only do what we tell them to do. Moon Jae-in has been very, very frustrated since he was elected president, last May, because he ran on a platform of trying to defuse the situation by having negotiations and having direct talks with North Korea.
He began his presidency by proposing military talks and also talks so divided families could meet. North Korea rebuffed him because North Korea feels that South Korea is too close to the United States, and is basically a pawn of the United States.
In that sense, I think, Kim Jong-un, reaching out to the Moon Jae-in government and saying, “Let’s have some discussion,” shows that maybe the two Koreas are going to, you know, can move in their own direction and try to defuse this situation.
By the way, the last talks between them were in 2005, so it’s actually a little bit longer than you said at the top of the show. The last talks were with the Park Geun-hye government, who was overthrown and was impeached. Those talks hardly went anywhere because the South Korean government at that time, had such a hard line against North Korea.
I think this, there’s real opportunity here, but there’s also danger that people like Daniel Russel and his equivalent, and the Trump administration, can really throw a cold water on this and turn it, and try to torpedo any kind of discussions that go on.
Speaking of North Korea and the larger context of U.S. imperialism, I had lunch with a friend a few weeks ago who, aware of my study and writing on foreign affairs, asked me why the U.S. government would want to be so aggressive on North Korea. Unlike the Middle East, there were no resources to control and no ideological divide with another rival superpower like during the Cold War – i.e. nothing about dominoes.
I don’t think I gave a particularly articulate response at the time. But when I thought about it more later, I realized that I would have had to explain the overall dynamics of power, what it does to those who get a taste of it, and find that they can wield it for decades with nothing and no one to provide a check on them.
Despite the dangerous myths that get propagated in U.S. culture about winning it, the Cold War ended because the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, chose – in the face of major problems at home, a quagmire in Afghanistan, and a huge military burden – to peacefully dismantle the Soviet empire and call the troops home from Afghanistan and Eastern Europe. As far as I’m aware, this is unprecedented in human history. No empire in decline or crisis has ever chosen to gracefully relinquish it in order to focus their resources on domestic reform. We can certainly debate how successful Gorbachev was in the long-run with domestic reform, but the fact that he handed the leaders of the other superpower, the U.S., with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to follow his lead and negotiate a peaceful international order – not to mention, an economic peace dividend that could have led to a more vibrant and equitable U.S. society – has significant implications.
The first is how the leadership of a supposedly sclerotic and authoritarian system like the Soviet Union could have allowed a humane reformer like Gorbachev to take power. Yet, in the supposedly more open, democratic and free U.S. the most moderate proponent of reform, Bernie Sanders – who would never advocate for the U.S. to close all of its ~700 military bases around the world, completely withdraw from all of its current wars and focus on domestic reform, engineering a soft landing for its imperial decline – is blocked from even running for president. This, despite the fact that the U.S. is also in crisis as approximately half of Americans are effectively poor while our military budget dwarfs the next half dozen or so nations combined and has continually increased under both Democratic and Republican administrations since the end of the Cold War – even though we’ve had no plausible threat to the homeland and no one seriously challenging our domination until very recently.
There is a quote by Chalmers Johnson in his book, The Sorrows of Empire, about the proliferation of America’s hundreds of military bases around the world since the end of WWII and how it didn’t stop with the end of the Cold War:
There is something else at work, which I believe is the post-Cold War discovery of our immense power, rationalized by the self-glorifying conclusion that because we have it, we deserve to have it. The only truly common elements in the totality of America’s foreign bases are imperialism and militarism – an impulse on the part of our elites to dominate other peoples largely because we have the power to do so, followed by the strategic reasoning that, in order to defend these newly acquired outposts and control the regions they are in, we must expand the areas under our control with still more bases.
To maintain its empire, the Pentagon must constantly invent new reasons for keeping in our hands as many bases as possible long after the wars and crises that led to their creation have evaporated. As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee observed as long ago as 1970: “Once an American overseas base is established it takes on a life of its own. Original missions may become outdated but new missions are developed, not only with the intention of keeping the facility going, but often to actually enlarge it.” (p. 152)
And this leads to an even greater implication – about the nature of unfettered power itself. Those who are attracted to power in the first place tend to either have poor character or psychological pathologies. When such a person then gets a taste of more and more power, it becomes like a drug – they want more and more. It is never enough.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, those controlling policy in the U.S. no longer had another country or alliance of countries to serve as a check on them. They could simply dictate to the rest of the world how things would be. Any nation that did not want to agree to the U.S.’s dictates – even if it was justifiably perceived to be against its interests to go along with U.S. dictates – would be bombed or invaded (e.g. Hussein and Qaddafi, both of whom wanted to trade oil in currency other than dollars, among other dangerously independent policies, and had given up their WMD programs at the behest of the West) and the country destroyed. Or, in the event that the nation in question has a nuclear arsenal or a military large enough to inflict significant casualties or damage on the U.S./NATO, then bogus sanctions are employed in an attempt to bleed the nation (e.g. Iran, North Korea and Russia).
The U.S., since the end of the Cold War, doesn’t know how to conduct diplomacy. Firstly, when was the last time we had a Secretary of State (remember the Department of State is supposed to be the Department of Diplomacy) who talked like a diplomat? Colin Powell’s craven performance at the UN peddling propaganda to enable Washington’s illegal invasion of Iraq? Hillary Clinton leading the charge to bomb Libya and cackling gleefully at the torture and murder of Qaddafi on camera? John Kerry at the podium in September of 2013 chomping at the bit to bomb Syria on what turned out to be dubious claims?
Secondly, there is the intolerance of the mainstream (corporate) media and among government officials (from whom they often take their lead) for attempts to understand a competitor nation’s perspective. A good recent example is, of course, Russia. In order to successfully conduct diplomacy, it is imperative that one have an understanding of one’s opponent or competitor’s worldview. This doesn’t mean one has to agree with it, but understanding it allows officials to determine how that nation perceives its own interests and what it might be willing to sacrifice in order to protect those perceived interests. None of that can be ascertained without having an understanding of the other nation’s history, culture and geography – which all shapes its worldview.
In order to successfully conduct diplomacy then government officials must have genuine quality experts advising them on other nations. As Gilbert Doctorow pointed out in a recent article, the post-Cold War crop of Russia experts is abysmal as reflected by mediocrities and ideologues like Celeste Wallander and Michael McFaul. This has led to profound miscalculations about Russia’s motives and capabilities with respect to Syria as well as Ukraine, and its resilience in the face of sanctions.
But then why conduct diplomacy or teach the skills needed to do so when you can instead bully what you want out of everyone because…well, because you can? And, after a while, you have developed a sense of entitlement to do so. It’s barely thought about any more than breathing. It is simply the way things are done. And when a whole military-industrial-complex exists to profit from it, there is even less incentive to ever end it.
So it should come as no surprise that the U.S. is acting aggressively and with profound ignorance about North Korea. Trump and those he has surrounded himself with don’t bother with smooth pretenses like human rights or democracy promotion to justify the essential violence and hubris of imperial aggression they preside over.
As Jimmy Dore keeps saying, Trump is a symptom not the problem itself. He has simply pulled the mask off for all the world to see the unvarnished truth of the systemic ugliness of Washington policy.