The Meaning of the Trump-Kim Summit
The momentum for peace and demilitarisation set in motion by the two Koreas, is essentially a process of self-determination says Jenny Clegg
The Trump-Kim summit has divided opinion across the political spectrum in the West: was it a historic step towards lasting peace in Korea or just a piece of diplomatic theatre?
True, the agreed statement lacks detail; true, the US and North Korea have made similar statements in the past; true, the two sides remain miles apart on what they mean by denuclearisation; and, true, Trump and his neocon backers are not to be trusted to stay the course. Nevertheless, there is a new momentum on the peninsula after 70 years of Cold War stasis.
Just a few months ago, Trump and Kim were threatening each other with annihilation - the fact that now both sides have stepped back from the nuclear brink cannot be anything other than hugely welcome. For them to commit to a new relationship to build a lasting peace as well as working towards denuclearisation has to be a pretty big step forward.
The ‘meeting of equals’ may have enraged Democrats and Republicans alike who have pilloried Trump for ‘giving away too much’. But the alternative was carnage: should war have broken out, even short of nuclear strike, casualties, both military and civilian, would have been astronomical - half a million, possibly a million, in just the opening weeks.
Precisely in its vagueness, the Trump-Kim agreement is an acknowledgement of the need for negotiation. The US has dropped its insistence on ‘complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation’ (CVID) as a precondition for talks, an all-or-nothing stance that had driven North Korea into a corner in the first place. A demand for unconditional surrender, it was never going to happen.
Then just hours after the summit, Trump took a step further to declare a halt to the joint military exercises with South Korea. These highly provocative war games involved flying nuclear-capable US bombers right up to the North Korean border, even dropping dummy bombs. Trump has in fact made good his word, cancelling the next round of exercises due to take place in August.
It was at this point last year, that the crisis was pushed to a dangerous peak as Trump pressed ahead with provocations against the urging of the UN General Secretary and European leaders such as Angela Merkel, as well as Russia and China, to freeze the exercises in exchange for a North Korean freeze nuclear and ballistic missile tests. North Korea then proceeded to carry out its fifth and largest ever nuclear test. But since last November, Kim Jong-un has refrained from any further testing. And now that Trump has too made concessions, cancelling the military exercises, a ‘freeze for freeze’ is in effect, paving the way for talks to progress.
Credit for the breakthrough to talks must be claimed primarily by the South Korean people themselves, who mobilised in their millions in the Candle Revolution against the ultra-right government of Park Geun-hye. Her impeachment removed an obstacle to improving relations with the North. Subsequent elections in May 2017 brought Moon Jae-in to power on the promise of resuming inter-Korean dialogue. A former student activist, Moon had been imprisoned in the 1970s and 1980s for protesting against the dictatorships of Generals Park and Chun; he had also gained experience in dealing with North Korea in a previous phase of ‘sunshine diplomacy’ and so was well prepared to take effective initiatives.
Now with the situation easing, a diplomatic dynamic has been unleashed. Korea’s division has kept North East Asia in a state of semi-freeze, under US restraint, for all these years since the Cold War ended in the West in the 1990s. But in recent weeks, we have seen a flurry of meetings - between North Korea and China; South Korea and China; South Korea and Russia. A Japan-China-South Korea trilateral economic summit saw a Chinese foreign minister visiting Japan for the first time in 8 years. Expectations of regional economic cooperation have awakened - railway lines, bridges, gas and energy pipelines, joining the region across the North Korean hub - stand waiting to be completed. Kim Jong-un has already started to shift national priorities towards economic development. All this can only be good for employment across the region whilst economic opening will surely be refreshing for the North Koreans themselves.
But is the US really ready to make peace? Denuclearisation without a peace agreement is not an option for North Korea but will the US insist on focusing exclusively on denuclearisation as it has in the past? Although CVID is no longer the immediate demand, it remains the ultimate goal, preserving the US’s right to use nuclear weapons against the North. But North Korea wants denuclearisation of the entire Korean peninsula, something that would surely mean restrictions on how close US nuclear bombers and submarines could get to its territorial boundaries.
In 2003, the Korean issue has been put on hold whilst the US focused attentions on the Middle East. But now the challenge of China’s rise is more pressing. The so-called ‘threat’ from North Korea has served as a cover for US military encirclement of China as well as for the ever-expanding U.S. military budget. It has kept Japan and South Korea in a tight alliance with the US to withstand the rise of China. But if North Korea is to be a ‘threat’ no longer, this puts the stationing of the 28,000 US troops in South Korea under question. And what need also for the American missile defense system (the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD)? Has US imperialism been brought to the point of unravelling? Or is this just a moment of hiatus while the US completes its military modernisation before asserting its full spectrum dominance?
The odds are negotiations will face disruptions, not least with John Bolton, Trump’s neocon security advisor, hovering in the wings. Nor can we expect consistency on the part of Trump himself, who at the same time is trying to scuttle the Iran nuclear agreement.
But different from previous agreements, the fact that this one has been made between the two top leaders makes it far more difficult to turn back on. The Trump-Kim agreement clearly has huge support among the people on both sides of the demilitarised zone and any reversal by the US will meet strong opposition. Neighbouring Russia and China, as well as South Korea, so long as Moon remains in power, which all share the North’s objective of denuclearising the peninsula as whole, are also on standby, ready to step in should dialogue falter.
Further progress may well take time. Take the 1972 ‘Nixon moment’ as an example. Right wing President Nixon’s unprecedented step towards rapprochement with China is now credited with shifting the Cold War towards a fundamental reorientation of Sino-US relations, but it took a further seven years to realise this with the establishment of diplomatic relations so ending of China’s isolation.
The anti-war movement now, as Ajuma Baraka, from the US Black Alliance for Peace, points out, should not similarly make the mistake of focusing exclusively on North Korean denuclearisation. For the people in Korea, he says ‘the real issue has always been the unfinished business of ending the war and beginning the decolonisation of the Korean peninsula’. The momentum for peace and demilitarisation set in motion by the two Koreas, is essentially a process of self-determination. It is therefore for the anti-war movement not only to hold Trump to his word, but to support the North-South peace process, and to call for the end of sanctions and the withdrawal of military.
If for the US anti-war movement, the point is to get their military get out of Korea, the same is true for anti-war activists in the UK. The continuing UK naval surveillance of North Korea’s coast can only add another obstacle to progress. The neocons are already taking advantage of the widespread criticisms of the summit, to make subversive claims of North Korean bad faith. Should diplomacy relapse now, the war option could be the only one left on the table.