President Donald Trump yanked the US-North Korean diplomatic process back onto the rails last week by meeting Chairman Kim Jong-un in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the Koreas. Tellingly, a strong majority of South Koreans approved of the meeting, while a cadre of American media shills and military industry-funded pundits lashed out against it.
Critics blasted the meeting as a superficial public relations ploy, and it’s true that Trump may have been trying to placate the non-interventionists who voted for him last time given his otherwise aggressive foreign policy. Still, exchanging friendly pleasantries is objectively better than threatening mutual obliteration (think back to the 2017 era of "fire and fury") and an off-the-record (but later reported) suggestion by Stephen Biegun, the head US negotiator for North Korea, hinted this historic meeting could lead to something more meaningful.
Biegun’s team is considering an interim deal featuring improved diplomatic relations and perhaps humanitarian aid in return for a continued, extended freeze on North Korean nuclear weapons development. Though Biegun stressed the Trump administration is still seeking North Korea’s complete denuclearization, this would be the first concrete and realistic American proposal since negotiations began.
Of course, you may rightly wonder how long the administration will maintain such a reasonable position with two ultra-hawks – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton – in Trump’s inner circle. Indeed, it didn’t take long for Bolton to savage the idea originally reported by the New York Times (before the source was revealed as Biegun), calling it "a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President."
Bolton and his ideological partner in the State Department have long espoused maximum pressure as the sole means for dealing with "rogue nations" (i.e. states that just want to exist beyond the direct influence of the US). Both are opposed to any concessions prior to complete North Korean denuclearization. Their continued presence in the upper-echelons of Trump’s foreign policy team therefore forces a heavy dose of skepticism about the DMZ meeting leading to substantial progress: Either the US president isn’t really all that serious about North Korean diplomacy, or, despite his sincerity, he sees some overwhelming political need to keep these two belligerents in place. If it’s the former, Trump may well be fine with any future Bolton-Pompeo attempt at sabotage. If it’s the latter, he may be powerless to stop it.
A Recent History of Diplomatic Disruption
After all, Bolton and Pompeo were the major players behind the two greatest diplomatic setbacks in NK-US negotiations since the optimistic days of the Singapore Summit.
Pompeo led the highly anticipated follow up meeting after Singapore, traveling to Pyongyang just a month after the two states agreed to improve relations, establish a peace regime, and work towards denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (in that order). Supporters of the process – a significant majority of South Koreans foremost among them – hoped this would be the critical next step in establishing a more concrete plan, and all serious analysts looked for any indication from Pompeo that the US would make the concessions necessary for true progress – namely, a peace deal as the security bedrock allowing North Korea to begin nuclear disarmament and sanctions relief for various landmarks reached along the way.
Instead, Pompeo had nothing to offer and much to demand, mainly asking for "a full declaration of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal [and] a timeline for dismantling the nuclear program…" A North Korean dispatch after the meeting echoed the feelings of many optimistic onlookers when they rightfully mourned, "Our hopes and expectations were so naive as to be gullible."
US-NK diplomacy appeared to go nowhere for months following this meeting, with the only apparent positive interactions between the two countries the sporadic messages sent back and forth between Trump and Kim. In the background South and North Korea continued to take remarkable strides, especially in terms of reducing military tensions, but US and UN sanctions have prevented the economic engagement South Korean President Moon Jae-in sees as the ultimate goal for this process and the key to revitalizing his country’s stagnant economy.
Inert as US-NK relations seemed, it was the much-maligned Trump-Kim connection that sparked another major summit, this time in Hanoi. Yet again, however, Koreans eager for a breakthrough permitting crucial North-South economic cooperation had their hopes dashed.
The two sides must have had some framework for a deal worked out in advance, considering Kim wasted 60 hours traveling to Hanoi by train. Even so, the meeting proved to be an utter disaster, apparently after Bolton – inexplicably part of the US negotiation team despite calling for the Libya model of death and destruction for North Korea less than a year prior – convinced Trump to suddenly present a paper bluntly demanding Kim hand over all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons material prior to any sanctions relief or improved diplomatic ties. Though these demands were laughable on their face and surely meant to be rejected, Kim and his aides had no choice but to play into Bolton’s hand and step away from the table. The event marked a nadir in US-NK-SK relations since the Korean-led thaw of early 2018. It was ‘mission accomplished’ for Bolton, who, prior to the summit, expressed confidence that "the negotiations … would collapse on their own."
Pompeo has been so harmful to the process that the North Korean government went as far as to request his removal from negotiations and, after Hanoi, their Vice Foreign Minister said the two had "…created an atmosphere of hostility and mistrust." So while Biegun’s proposal could very well be the catalyst for moving US-NK talks forward, recent history suggests Bolton and Pompeo will do whatever they can to prevent meaningful concessions in order to stall future progress.
With the general consensus in Washington heavily critical of Trump’s North Korean diplomacy (especially among the pathetic Democratic opposition and in spite of South Korean popular opinion), it’s hard to imagine Trump, of all people, remaining committed to a progressive approach in the long-term unless he has solid backing among his highest political appointees – which in this case he clearly does not.
Short-term Prospects Aside, the DMZ Meeting Was a Small Step for Eventual Korean Peace
Still, when it comes to Korean peace, the opinions and aspirations of Koreans and Koreans alone will eventually, inevitably have the most impact. Critics of the DMZ meeting should therefore give consideration to the fact most Koreans prefer handshakes to war threats, especially with greater Seoul, one of the most heavily populated places on Earth, within range of destructive North Korean artillery (just as North Korea faces the constant prospect of obliteration by the vastly superior militaries of the US-SK alliance).
Even if the cabal represented by Bolton and Pompeo prevents a true peace deal in the short term, it has lost much ground as the two Koreas continue to make great strides in rapprochement. Two images from the DMZ meeting show just how much the situation has improved over the past two years: North and South Korean security guards exchanging a warm greeting of recognition (video link) from past summits, and another member of the North Korean security team and his American counterpart acknowledging each other with respectful head nods (video link, 3:30 mark) – all unarmed as a result of an inter-Korean agreement to finally demilitarize the Joint Security Area of the DMZ. Such exchanges alone are tiny victories for peace. They are given the setting to develop through meetings like the one on June 30.
President Moon may not solidify his legacy with a peace deal and initiate significant inter-Korean economic cooperation before his term in office ends, but his efforts will ensure his eventual successor finds it very difficult to resume the military tensions of the past. At the same time, by forming an amicable relationship with the leader of North Korea, Trump has done more than any other sitting US president to allow the space for a thaw on the peninsula, despite continuing to prevent – as all US presidents have – the conditions needed for unfettered Korean integration. While Trump should be criticized – and heavily – for remaining committed to the sanctions obstructing the Koreas from seeing this process to its ultimate conclusion, the DMZ meeting is still a patch, however small, in the greater tapestry of developments that – in the long term – will enshrine peace as the norm in Korea. It should be acknowledged as such, and its critics should be properly scorned.
Stu Smallwood is a Korean-English translator currently based in Montreal, Canada. He lived in South Korea for eight years from 2008-2016 and has a (useless) MA in Asian Studies from Sejong University in Seoul. In addition to Antiwar.com, his writing has appeared at Global Research and the Hankyoreh. He can be reached by email at stuartsmallwood[at]gmail.com or through his Twitter handle @stu-smallwood.