Originally published April 23, 2018: Justin is recuperating from his recent radiation treatment and has suggested running this still-relevant, and, sadly, still timely column about the state of US politics and North Korea. Written nearly a year ago, every word rings true. Especially gut-wrenching is his comment about US Establishment resistance to peace in the region: “the situation will have moved into the realm of the previously impermissible, i.e., beyond Washington’s control – and this kind of thing is what really enrages our political class.” And this acting out, this senseless hand-wringing (and worse), is what we are watching now. As Antiwar.com is about midway through our winter fundraising, please donate today! We need your support to continue to bring you 24/7 analysis and news – the good news is that we have matching funds ($40,000 total!) so your assistance will be doubled.
Yesterday they told us that President Trump was intent on war – he was about to invade Korea¸ unleash “fire and fury,” and millions would die.
Today many of these very same people are telling us that President Trump has been “snookered” by the wily Kim Jong-un, who doesn’t really mean all the pre-summit concessions he’s already made quite publicly. Trump, they say, is about to give away the farm to the North Koreans without getting anything in return.
The only constant note emitted by the Trump-hating chattering classes is their obsessive focus on That Man in the White House. Yet this development actually has little to do with Trump, at least in its origins: indeed, it’s not about us. The Korean summit came out of the election victory of President Moon Jai-in, whose signature campaign issue was reintroduction of the late lamented “Sunshine” policy of rapprochement with the North.
Moon and Kim will meet this week in a preliminary summit leading up to the supposedly bigger event, the Trump-Kim super-summit. Or so the conventional wisdom would have it: after all, isn’t everything in the world really about us?
Well, no, but you’ll have a hard time telling the pundits and policy wonks that. They don’t realize that the real summit is taking place this week in Korea, as the two leaders form a united front against Washington’s War Party – hoping to enlist Trump on their side.
As for the President, he’s optimistic but rightly says “we’ll see if it works out,” even as he lists the concessions already made by the North, which include:
- A commitment to complete denuclearization
- A pledge to end nuclear testing
- A pledge to end ICBM tests.
- A statement dropping their longtime demand for the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea.
Significantly, the office of President Moon and the North Koreans have jointly declared their intention to formally end the Korean war, presumably by signing a peace treaty, replacing the current armistice.
Prediction: Trump will make a big show of accepting it, and implicitly taking credit for it. But, hey, the Koreans don’t care who gets the credit, nor do they care about the vagaries of American politics except as they affect the ability of the Korean nation to reunite and recover from their national trauma.
And while the Koreans are the prime movers of the “Sunshine Policy II” initiative, the thaw would have been impossible if not for the enthusiastic endorsement of President Trump. The Koreans would not go to the Trump-Kim summit with a peace treaty without assurances that it would be welcomed by the White House. I think Mike Pompeo’s recent secret trip to North Korea may have something to do with that.
The level of analysis we get from the insta-“experts” on television is a cartoonish rendition of the grim reality of North Korea, made without reference to the historical context in which that impossible creature, a hereditary communist monarchy, was born.
Every single building in North Korea was bombed during the Korean war: the entire country was leveled to the ground. Twenty percent of the population perished. Out of this blasted landscape came the mutant form of communism practiced by the regime since the ascension of Founder-Leader Kim Il-sung, the guerrilla leader who rose to the top of the heap in the wake of the armistice. In rising to power, he had to fight off attempts by pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese factions to displace him, and this internal fight led to the development of North Korea’s unique adaptation of “Marxism-Leninism”: “Juche,” or national self-sufficiency. It is a radical extension of the Hermit Kingdom’s historical position of extreme isolationism: complete economic and social autarchy.
All this developed in reaction to the nation’s tortured history of colonialism, first under the Japanese boot, followed by civil war, foreign invasion, and division. Yet the body politic eventually heals when the cause of the initial inflammation disappears: despite the poverty of this organic analogy, that is – broadly speaking – what is happening on the Korean peninsula today.
Moon and Kim will declare the Korean war officially over, but in reality it ended on July 27, 1953, when the armistice was signed. The North celebrates that day as “Victory Day,” while here in the US no one would think of hailing that war as anything close to a victory, not even the sweatiest old cold warrior. It was, at best, a draw. And so for close on seven decades the Korean peninsula has been frozen in time, stuck in that Cold War moment when the shooting stopped.
The peace initiative has the support of 75% of the South Korean people, and the reason for this is simple: the original reasons for the North-South divide have been outlived. The foreign patrons who made the establishment of the North Korean regime possible – the Soviet Union and “Red” China – are no more, the former literally and the latter in all but form. The East is no longer red: instead, it is the color of money, as China charges down the “capitalist road” (as the Maoists used to put it) at 100 miles per hour and Russia is simply a bit player in the region.
Skeptics billed as “experts” ask: Why would Kim Jong-un, the bad boy mini-Stalin, give up his insurance policy of a nuclear arsenal, at the risk of winding up like Ghadafi?
To begin with, the Koreans are not the Libyans. The two scenarios are quite different: if any agreement is reached, and Kim lets in the inspectors, the subsequent reunification process will preclude Western intervention. They’d have to take on the South as well as the North: indeed, nothing would hasten the reunification process more than a “regime change” attempt engineered by the Usual Suspects.
The more fundamental reason for the apparent willingness of Kim to make significant concessions is simple economics: the North Korean people cannot eat Juche. Pyongyang’s “military first” policy has drained the nation of its very substance. Strategically, the best hopes for the survival of the North Korean elite is in some kind of settlement. Kim realizes that: so does President Moon. I won’t venture to say what Trump realizes, but his recent tweets – really all we have to go by – are leaning in the same direction.
It is a tripartite consensus that is the exact opposite of the Washington Consensus, the conventional wisdom of the foreign policy “Blob,” which is ideologically and emotionally committed to maintaining the status quo. These mandarins, who previously warned us that Trump would soon be bombing Pyongyang, are now comically and non-ironically declaring that the very fact of holding talks with Kim “legitimizes” the North Korean regime. To which the Korean people, in the South as well as the North, might well reply: Who is doing the legitimizing here?
What legitimized the mutant communism of the Korean Workers Party, as the North Korean ruling party calls itself, was the war against the Japanese occupiers, and the concentration of pro-Japanese collaborators in the anti-communist armies of the South. What drove the Korean nation asunder – a nationalist reaction to foreign intervention – is reuniting it today.
The timing of the twin summits is crucial: the meeting of the Korean leaders on both sides of the divide will forge a peace agreement that Washington will have a hard time even modifying, never mind vetoing. At that point the situation will have moved into the realm of the previously impermissible, i.e. beyond Washington’s control – and this kind of thing is what really enrages our political class.
Remember that the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the impressive collapse of communist rule throughout the Warsaw Pact, were greeted by then President George H. W. Bush with trepidation and outright hostility. The Brexit vote outraged the Davos crowd in the same way and for the same reason: because nothing that major can be outside their control. This is how hubris – the word the ancient Greeks used to describe a tragic conceit often accompanied by lethal consequences – translates into policy: the belief that any initiatives originating outside the Western world are intolerable violations of the “international liberal order.” The Korean peace initiative certainly puts this old saw to the test.
The stakes are high: there’s a lot of money tied up in the South Korean model of America’s relations to its allies and protectorates. Major outlays of US resources, in the form of troops and treasure – in addition to unbalanced trade relationships – are also required in the cases of Japan and Taiwan respectively. These are all costly tripwires that could set off a major conflict in a very short time, and some people make an enormous amount of money keeping them locked and loaded. This include “defense intellectuals” who maintain a high level of income and professional prestige because they are bought and paid for by the narrow economic interests who profit from the system. This is the ultimate source of the “expert” naysayer’s chorus. Part of the fun of this unfolding drama is watching the complete humiliation of these nattering nabobs of negativity (sorry, Spiro!) as peace breaks out despite their howls of protest.
The Korean summits threaten the basic architecture of the post-WWII American empire: costly bases, large troop concentrations, essentially a full-scale military occupation. This setup requires huge outlays of tax dollars, and that’s just in direct costs: in short, there’s a huge trough at which plenty of federal contractors feed. If the need for US bases in South Korea disappears, then what about Okinawa, that perpetual source of tension with Japan? If they can close bases in northern Asia, then why not in Europe? After all, are the tens of thousands of US troops in Germany really guarding against the possibility of a Russian invasion?
So Trump is really chiseling away at the foundation stone of our “empire of bases,” as I think Chalmers Johnson dubbed America’s overseas presence. In doing so he is taking on some mighty powerful economic interests. A lot of money is at stake here. More importantly, a principle is at stake here, and that is the persistent belief on the part of our political class that they are called on by a God they don’t believe in to direct the affairs of the world. No matter how many times it is debunked, this conceit returns to haunt us on the op-ed pages of the nation’s newspapers and on the airwaves ruled by the cable news shouters. Can Trump, that Samson in the Temple of the Conventional Wisdom, be the one to bring that pillar of empire down?
Stranger things have happened, starting with Trump’s election victory.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.