Playing Trump for Peace: How the Korean Peninsula Could Become a Bright Spot in a World Gone Mad

By John Feffer, the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands (a Dispatch Books original) and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book is Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams.Originally published at TomDispatch

When, in early March, Donald Trump agreed to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the Washington foreign policy elite nearly suffered a collective heart attack.

For one thing, the announcement came as a complete surprise. Trump had telegraphed his other foreign policy bombshells well in advance: leaving the Paris climate accord, ripping up the Iran nuclear deal, reversing détente with Cuba. North Korea was another matter. Trump had repeatedly insulted Kim Jong-un in his trademark style, calling him “Little Rocket Man” on Twitter and threatening at the U.N. in September 2017 to “totally destroy North Korea.” Official Washington was braced for war, not peace.

You’d think, then, that an announcement of jaw-jaw, not war-war, would have met with universal acclaim in the nation’s capital. Instead, observers across the ideological spectrum found fault with Trump and his attempt to denuclearize North Korea through negotiations. They criticized his timing, his impulsiveness, even the fact that the announcement came from South Korean representatives visiting Washington and not the president himself.

Experts on Korea promptly decried the president’s move because he hadn’t demanded any North Korean concessions first. “We’d expect such a highly symbolic meeting to happen after some concrete deliverables were in hand, not before,” tweeted New America Foundation fellow Suzanne DiMaggio. (In fact, the North Koreans had declared a moratorium on further testing of their nukes and missiles, but that apparently didn’t count.)

Worse yet, the North Koreans were getting the summit of their dreams for nothing. “Kim will accomplish the dream of his father and grandfather by making North Korea a nuclear state,” tweeted Abraham Denmark, head of Asia programs at the Wilson Center, “and gain tremendous prestige and legitimacy by meeting with an American president as an equal. All without giving up a single warhead or missile.”

Although some foreign policy professionals did express cautious optimism that something good could still come from the first summit between an American president and a North Korean leader — now officially scheduled for June 12th in Singapore — the overall verdict was one of barely concealed dismay. “The U.S. has been getting played and outmaneuvered the past three months… and it’s happening again, right now,” tweeted former Pentagon official Van Jackson.

Skepticism is, of course, the default position of the foreign policy community. Bad things happen all the time in geopolitics; peace is an extraordinarily difficult feat to pull off; and most diplomatic outcomes are, at best, glass-half-full affairs. So, for pundits eager to maintain their gigs on network TV and a steady stream of interview requests from print journalists, it was a far better bet to put their chips on double zero.

And it’s true, the history of U.S.-North Korean relations has been a graveyard of defunct initiatives: the Agreed Framework of 1994, the Six Party Talks from 2003 to 2007, the Leap Day Agreement of 2012. If North Korea were to cancel the summit because of U.S.-South Korean military exercises or the inflammatory statements of John Bolton, it would become just another headstone. Far more competent negotiators than Donald Trump tried their hands at preventing the North from going nuclear and suffered epic fails. More troubling still, Trump was preparing for negotiations without even an ambassador in South Korea, lacking a special representative for North Korean policy, and with a new secretary of state barely confirmed by the Senate. In other words, at that key moment, “understaffed” would have been an understatement when it came to the U.S. diplomatic corps and the Koreas.

Finally, both Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have posted some of the highest negatives since Attila the Hun. The notion that two such wrongs could make a right certainly tests the credulity of the most dispassionate observer. You wouldn’t normally want to buy a used car, much less a complex diplomatic deal, from either of them.

And yet, don’t fool yourself (even if most of Washington does): the upcoming Trump-Kim summit, if it happens, will represent an extraordinarily important step forward, whether it actually produces an agreement of substance or not. It may not end the longest ongoing conflict in U.S. history, but that’s really not the point. The summit’s importance lies largely in its symbolic encouragement of another process entirely, one already underway between the two Koreas. U.S. observers remain focused on nuclear weapons, but nukes aren’t actually the key issue here. In fact, for all the talk about Donald Trump getting a Nobel Prize, to put events in perspective you need to remember that the American president is, at best, a third wheel in what’s developing.

The leaders of the two Koreas have effectively manipulated him into supporting a genuinely hopeful, potentially history-changing process of reconciliation on their peninsula. It’s been a brilliant tactic and if U.S. observers of Korea could put aside their kneejerk skepticism, as well as their America First biases, they would be applauding the best chance in decades for Koreans themselves to defuse the most dangerous situation in Asia.

Playing the President

In keeping with his particular brand of narcissism, Donald Trump is convinced that he alone is responsible for bringing about change on the Korean peninsula. He believes that his threats against the North, his push for tougher sanctions, and his pressure on China to tighten the screws on its erstwhile ally were the key factors in Kim Jong-un’s decision at the beginning of 2018 to reach out to his southern neighbor and extend an olive branch to Washington.

In truth, the initial impetus for the changes in Korea had little to do with President Trump.

After his country conducted its sixth nuclear test in September 2017 and its first ICBM test that November, the North Korean leader must have come to believe that his nuclear weapons program was the sufficiently solid deterrent and valuable bargaining chip he had been seeking. By then, too, he had consolidated his political control in Pyongyang by purging the party, the military, and even his own family, leaving him confident that he could negotiate agreements outside the country without worrying about a palace coup back home. Finally, the North Korean economy was actually managing modest growth, despite the fierce American sanctions campaign against it. This was in part because so many countries were willing to look the other way in the face of widespread violations of the global sanctions regime.

Undoubtedly, Kim was aware of warning signs as well: a dangerous economic dependence on China, a lack of capital for investment, and a declining growth rate. When it came to all three, the logical place to turn was South Korea. Since taking office in March 2017, South Korean President Moon Jae-in had pushed hard for a new engagement policy with the North.

For many months, Pyongyang did not respond, so Moon mended fences where he could. He launched a “New Northern Policy,” focusing on fostering further cooperation with Russia. That November, he reached a compromise with China, promising not to expand a new U.S. missile defense system placed in South Korea earlier in the year in exchange for Beijing lifting restrictions on trade and investment.

In a New Year’s speech in January 2018, however, Kim Jong-un suddenly and very publicly reversed his position. Moon was already well primed — some might say desperate — to take advantage of such a gesture. As a result, in the full glare of international media attention, the two Koreas suddenly launched a policy of cooperation at the 2018 Winter Olympics being held at the time in the south. Then, at the end of April, Kim and Moon actually met in the first inter-Korean summit to take place on South Korean soil.

This was, admittedly, not the first time the two Koreas had attempted a détente, but previous efforts had been stymied, at least in part, by American opposition. Congressional hostility toward North Korea during the latter years of the Clinton era and George W. Bush’s inclusion of North Korea in his ominous “axis of evil” in 2002 put a distinct damper on the possibility of inter-Korean cooperation.

This time, however, the two leaders adopted a new strategy for roping the United States into the process. Instead of appealing to the Korea policy community in Washington — an unimaginative gaggle of Cassandras — each of them decided to “turn” the U.S. president.

Initially, both were undoubtedly as bemused by Donald Trump’s erratic foreign policy tweets as the rest of the world. Still, Kim and his officials reached out to Republican-linked analysts in Washington and soon grasped that the new president valued personal relationships, discounted the advice of policy professionals, dismissed the importance of human rights, and measured his successes largely by the failures of his predecessors, especially Barack Obama.

Keep in mind as well that, for all the hostility Trump had directed toward Pyongyang during the 2016 presidential campaign, he had also signaled — though at the time it was treated as a throwaway line — that he’d be pleased to meet Kim Jong-un and serve him “a hamburger on a conference table.” As president, in May 2017, months before he started threatening to deliver “fire and fury like the world has never seen” to the North, he even called Kim a “smart cookie” and reiterated his willingness to sit down with him. In both instances, he received mockery, not support, from America’s Korea watchers who considered him “naïve” (which was true but beside the point).

Most critically, the North Koreans evidently realized that they could appeal to Trump’s desire to destroy the legacy of Barack Obama. The president had fervently promised to unravel anything and everything his predecessor had ever done, from health care to climate change. But on the Korean peninsula, Obama had never achieved a thing. His policy of “strategic patience” had amounted to little more than eight years of hoping that North Korea would relocate to another planet. In such a situation, the North’s appalling human rights record, its spotty negotiating history, and its very real nuclear weapons program mattered little in Trump’s quest to once again one-up Obama.

South Korea faced a similar set of challenges. In the fall of 2017, Trump accused Moon Jae-in of the “appeasement” of North Korea, though he provided no specifics. Normally, such a charge would have been poison in Washington. Moon could certainly have upped the ante by retaliating in kind. Instead, he cannily held his tongue — and when the tone suddenly shifted in inter-Korean relations in early 2018, the South Korean president pursued a psychologically even smarter tactic: he began heaping compliments on President Trump for making it all happen.

True, Moon’s over-the-top praise flew in the face of what really lay behind the transformation in relations, but he, too, had been well briefed on the president’s personality and predilections. He, too, grasped that the American narcissist-in-chief would incline toward praise like a plant toward the sun. When asked if he should get a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, Moon immediately insisted that it was Trump, and Trump alone, who deserved such an honor. (Only later did Trump’s base begin chanting “Nobel! Nobel! Nobel!”)

The leaders of both Koreas grasped a reality that eluded Washington’s pundits: that Donald Trump was their best chance of disarming a skeptical American foreign policy elite. In gaining Trump’s support, the two Koreas have indeed, however paradoxically, neutralized the United States as an actor in the drama of inter-Korean relations.

Confronting the Impossible

Think of the story of the two Koreas as a parable of two “impossibles.”

The first impossible is denuclearization. Now that North Korea has a nuclear weapons program, it’s difficult to imagine that it will surrender such weaponry. After all, given the relative decline of its conventional forces, nukes provide a genuine insurance policy against any outside effort at regime change. They’re also the main reason the United States pays any attention to the country. Without nuclear weapons, North Korea would become as vulnerable as Iraq was in 2003 and as irrelevant as Laos after 1975. Nuclear weapons are Pyongyang’s ticket to international respect. Why on Earth would Kim Jong-un give them up in exchange for a non-aggression “guarantee” from the United States, a pledge that a subsequent administration might simply tear up (just as Trump recently shredded Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran)?

The second impossible is reunification. The Koreas are about as far apart as two countries coexisting in the same century could be, as economically disparate as Germany and Ghana, as politically different as Athens and Sparta. One country is thoroughly connected to the world community; the other maintains an isolation policy comparable to eighteenth-century Japan’s. Like matter and anti-matter, the two Koreas risk catastrophe if suddenly brought together.

There are three imaginable ways of dealing with these two impossibles. The first, of course, is the regime-change approach of National Security Advisor John Bolton and his fan club. The idea would be to accelerate the demise of Kim’s regime either indirectly through covert means or even directly through war. In the wake of a North Korean collapse, according to this crackpot scenario, the U.S. Army would sweep into that country, gathering up the loose nukes, while South Korea absorbed the north just as West Germany swallowed East Germany in 1990. No one with an ounce of sense, from academics to Pentagon officials, considers this a viable approach, given the heightened risk of a war with mass casualties, possibly tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands dead and wounded, and the potential use of some of the North’s nukes in South Korea and beyond. And that’s not even taking into consideration the South’s unwillingness to contemplate the immense costs of an overnight reunification.

Despite Trump’s embrace of a summit with Kim Jong-un, Bolton hasn’t given up on this regime-change approach. He initially sought to load the summit agenda with enough non-nuclear issues (missiles, abductions of Japanese and South Koreans) to make it unwieldy and bound to fail. More critically, he insisted that the “Libya” model would serve as the example the United States would follow with North Korea — an ominous signal, given that the regime of Muammar Gaddafi collapsed under the pressure of a U.S.-NATO intervention several years after it gave up its nuclear program. In explaining why North Korea might cancel the summit with Trump, a government spokesman singled out Bolton and his Libya references. And in truth, the North Korean reaction was not a “tantrum,” as the Washington Post editorialized, but a reasonable objection to Bolton’s tactics.

The second approach, the default position for several decades, has been to wait for North Korea to “come to its senses” and beg for an agreement with the United States. Tighter sanctions and an inflexible negotiating position, the adherents of this theory believe, will eventually inflict so much pain on the North that, sooner or later, even the autocratic leadership of Pyongyang will realize its people can’t eat nukes and trade them in for a ticket to the global economy. However attractive this strategy may look, it obviously hasn’t worked over many years. Here, Trump’s critique of the Obama administration has for once been accurate.

The third approach, slow-motion reunification, finally seems to be emerging as the plan of choice for both Koreas. It treats each of the impossibles as resolvable over time.

Moon Jae-in adopted this approach to reunification from his mentor, former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. Cooperative economic projects are to be designed to gradually bridge the income gap between the two countries. Negotiations over a rail link and fishing rights in adjoining waters are meant to begin the process of harmonizing the political approaches of the two countries. According to a plan Moon delivered to Kim via USB drive at the April summit, South Korea would help its northern neighbor enter the global community by degrees so that, like a diver surfacing from a great depth, it wouldn’t suffer the bends.

Denuclearization is equally tricky. But a slow-motion process might also square the circle. If North Korea and the United States agree to a staged reduction of the North’s nuclear weapons in exchange for a gradually increasing set of incentives, Kim Jong-un could potentially have his nukes (for a while) and give them up as well (eventually).

Although the elimination of nuclear weapons may be the ultimate goal — for North Korea as well as all other nuclear states — denuclearization as such could prove a distraction in the medium term. After all, Kim Jong-un could decide to reverse such a commitment or continue to pursue the objective secretly. So the goal should really be to ensure that North Korea doesn’t want to use those weapons — or any other weapons — because to do so would jeopardize its newfound position in the global economy. That was the U.S. strategy toward China in the 1970s after it, too, had become a nuclear power and it worked without either denuclearization or regime change.

In other words, the worst position Trump could take in Singapore would be to demand that North Korea completely and immediately abandon its nuclear weaponry before it receives any benefits from a reduction in global economic sanctions. By contrast, a more gradual timeline for denuclearization could well dovetail with slow-motion reunification. What many Korea watchers insist is a fatal flaw in the Trump-Kim summit — a completely different understanding of what denuclearization entails — might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Such strategic ambiguity could allow both sides to make interim compromises and embrace an interim reduction in tensions even though they were incapable of really agreeing on the end game.

Which brings us back to all the skepticism surrounding the upcoming summit. Sure, it might end up more show than substance, but that would be fine. What the two Koreas really need is the equivalent of a papal benediction from Trump. Let the American president claim the credit, all of it, for processes of denuclearization and reunification meant to intersect at some distant horizon. Let him preen about his contributions to world peace (while he ratchets up war tensions against Iran). Let his fans chant and his Republican backers in Congress nominate him for a Nobel Prize. Let him cling to his misconceptions about North Korea, nukes, and the nature of geopolitics.

And then let him get out of the way so that the Koreans can do the real work, the historic work, the breakthrough work, of knitting the peninsula back together.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    Guys, I got this. I know how to bring peace to the Korean peninsular. Anybody seen images of the Mansu Hill Grand Monument in Pyongyang, North Korea? The two main statues are of the deceased supreme North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and are 20-meter (66-foot) tall bronze statues. Here is an image to give you the scale-

    Now imagine it. Both Koreas tell Trump if he can pull it off with a peace treaty that they will build one of him and install it at Panmunjom in his honour. Can you imagine the effect on Trump? He wouldn’t be able to call peace quick enough. It might just work!

    1. johnnygl

      Throw in a hotel/casino in Seoul and you may have yourself a deal! Or maybe you could just tell the S. Koreans to buy him off like the Chinese seem to have done by financing one of his projects in return for relief from sanctions on ZTE.

      1. Wukchumni

        When I was in Seoul in the early 1980’s, the sole house of chance was the Paradise Walker Hill Casino that only allowed foreigners to gamble, no South Korean punters, please!

        Looking @ the internet just now, it’s still the same gig.

      2. John Wright

        The topper would be to add a much smaller statue of Trump’s father looking up in awe at the Donald.

  2. voteforno6

    It would be rather amusing to see Trump blunder his way into some sort of peace accord…that would certainly call into question the competence and priorities of the foreign policy establishment in the U.S.

  3. Richard Strickland

    …..Trump continues to stumble to continuing “called” bumbles, but without any lasting tumbles…?…….best to all……………

  4. Enrique

    1) No fan of Trump here, or for that matter any US politician of major standing.

    2) I wonder if on some level Trump realises that by putting himself out there as an alternative “problem solver” then the two Koreas will more or less say “better us to sort this than that buffoon.”

    3) Assuming 2, Trump gets to on some level claim credit and, ironically, be a better candidate for the Nobel Peace Price than (genuflects) Obama. They’d almost have to give it to him!

    4) The collective heads of hashtag the resistance explode. Lil’ Kim, South Korea’s leadership, the Nobel Committee, and (presumably) the top-charting K-Pop artist of the day all get added to the list of Moscow operatives simultaneously. Rachel Maddow would need a whole new cork board for all the additional push-pins and yarn strings.

    I have to admit that I would enjoy seeing all this happen, even at the cost of a more likely Trump win in 2020. Well this last because I am almost certain any realistic Democratic alternative to him would be zero percent better, but still. Would be quite funny to see.

  5. mle detroit

    Great framing. Who knew that battledore and shuttlecock could be so compelling a spectator sport? Pass the popcorn, please!

  6. Arizona Slim

    This could be Trump’s equivalent of Nixon going to China. Or, look at it this way, if Dennis Rodman can befriend Kim Jong Un, imagine what Trump could do.

    1. cocomaan

      From the article above:

      More troubling still, Trump was preparing for negotiations without even an ambassador in South Korea, lacking a special representative for North Korean policy, and with a new secretary of state barely confirmed by the Senate. In other words, at that key moment, “understaffed” would have been an understatement when it came to the U.S. diplomatic corps and the Koreas.

      As far as I can tell, Dennis Rodman has done more for Korean peace than any of the grifters from the state department.

      I think we need to consider whether the state department is run by a bunch of ineffective morons. Because it certainly seems that way to me.

  7. neo-realist

    This meeting of the Korea’s, which may result in a peaceful co-existence deal between the two, is all fine and good as long as you recognize at the end of the day that in all likelihood, the North will keep their nukes and will continue to keep them as a baseline for future negotiations that may result in symbolic piecemeal reductions. However, I could see Trump and corporate media playing this up as a major administration accomplishment even if he doesn’t get the denuclearization he, Bolton, and Pompeo want.

    And the cost of a Trump win in 2020 in my mind is still inferior to that of a Democratic candidate when you consider that he can put more right wing judges in the district courts and get a another one or two conservative sycophants on the Supreme.

  8. VietnamVet

    This is a good article that is so missed in today’s corporate media. Koreans realized that Seoul would be wiped out in an American First Strike. That this is of no concern to Americans wonderfully concentrated their minds. Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) works. Peace is the only alternative to destruction and chaos.

    “The Americans” TV show depicts this realization in the Reagan Administration. It is sad and tragic that Donald Trump (who likely did duck and cover drills in boarding school) is the only one in power in Washington DC today who gets this. His administration plans to nominate Admiral Harry Harris, the head of the US military’s Pacific Command, to the post of ambassador to South Korea. The Empire is so addicted to war that the ruling oligarchs and their war staff can’t acknowledge MAD. The risk from a nuclear war is so great that expanding the 17-year old war into Korea or Iran is insane.

    Yet, Donald Trump and the Koreans may finesse the negotiations to give peace a chance,

  9. clarky90

    The Korean War started before I was born and I am nearly 68. It has been “a rat turd (of many) in the soup” of my life. If Donald Trump can resolve this war, I say, unequivocally, Hooorahhhh for peace and any part that DJT played in it!

    Why is it impossible for some people to just say “Hooorahhhh for peace”? Would they rather choose war? Pride goeth before destruction….

  10. RBHoughton

    I am so fearful that someone who can influence the progress of these peace talks will do the deed that ensures they fail.

    Kim is embalmed in the cooperative and unconfrontational style of Asia. He may recognise the rudeness of our western society from films and news but he does not endorse or copy it. His responses so far have been quintessentially Asian.

    The best prospects for a deal are for North and South to talk it through and settle the terms between themselves. Publish that and see what Washington has to say about it.

    1. animalogic

      Yes, allowing Nth & Sth to work things out would be ideal. However, the Sth is still effectively a US hostage. Its military I believe is still commanded by the US. That ALL US forces should be withdrawn from the Sth is a given.
      How can Korea work towards peace while the US goes thru its nth military games on the border ? The Nth was rightly peeved at the recent wargames & their use of various strategic bombers. How can the Nth trust the Sth not to slavishly follow US diktats ? 70 years of history….
      Further, it already seems likely that the US will demand everything & offer very little: the hordes of Nth haters in the US will accept nothing less(many will applaud complete failure: heightened Korean tensions are useful….

  11. Arthur Dent

    I think Kim wants just enough sanctions lifted so that he doesn’t have mass starvation, but not so much as people actually have much contact with the rest of the world. He watched the Arab Spring etc. and wants to stay in power.

    Having nuclear weapons reduces the influence China and Russia can exert regarding regime change in North Korea. I think he yells at the US because the US can’t do much without getting Seoul wiped off the map whereas Kim relies on China and Russia for all of his support and they would not take kindly to the loss of face by being directly threatened by Kim’s nuclear weapons.

    John Bolton appears to have never heard about General Douglas MacArthur and his disastrous foray north of the 38th parallel. MacArthur had the war won and then promptly let his ego lead him and his army into catastrophe.

    So what if North and South Korea declare peace with China and Russia as guarantors? That removes the need for US forces to be on the peninsula and South Korea could politely request the US troops to leave. Trump can meet a campaign promise of bringing more troops home.

  12. ewmayer

    “The second impossible is reunification. The Koreas are about as far apart as two countries coexisting in the same century could be, as economically disparate as Germany and Ghana, as politically different as Athens and Sparta. One country is thoroughly connected to the world community; the other maintains an isolation policy comparable to eighteenth-century Japan’s. Like matter and anti-matter, the two Koreas risk catastrophe if suddenly brought together.”

    This sort of blinkered “strategic calculus” is precisely the reason Trump, for all his erratic ways, is exactly right to ignore the bloody-minded yapping of the U.S./NATO/think-tank foreign policy “experts”. The above sounds like a globalist FP take written by a bunch of neolib economic wonks – who of course are typically merely the economic-policy wing of the western imperial-violence-loving neocon establishment, of which the likes of every recent U.S. president and Hillary have been card-carrying members. It completely ignores the shared history, language and deep cultural ties of the two Koreas. And since the present economic disparity was generations in the making, it is idiotic to think that any kind of rapid crash-course economic/infrastructure program for the North is advisable. Thankfully the policy elite in the South seem understand this much better than their western allies and trading partners, and have like been working of contingency plans for a multigenerational reunification process for many years. That is also the kind of time frame needed for the North to undergo the political changes needed to transition from the Stalinist familial-cult-of-personality governance model to something more democratic, though hopefully not as money-corrupted as the latter model too often is in the South.

    Another thing too often ignored in such western analyses is the very relevant fact that South Korea was itself a quite repressive militaristic state until the late 1980s. So the current political-model disparity is only around 30 years old.

  13. Expat

    One small problem: North and South Korea are not directly at war, nor is South Korea a signatory of the truce. The US provoked the war, controlled South Korean military forces directly, and led a coalition of the willing under a UN flag.

    I think if Trump were to do something he promised to do, withdraw from the world, then the Koreas might have a chance at reconciliation. But with constant US threats and embargoes as well as a US army on the border, North Korea has every reason to want nukes and to play tough.

  14. Fred

    I’m a little slow to read some articles, but this one is particuarly telling given the news this morning that the summit is off, for now, maybe…

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