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General News    H3'ed 5/21/18

Tomgram: John Feffer, Korea's Two "Impossibles"

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Here's a recent typical headline about the upcoming talks between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un: "Will Trump's Ignorance (and Bolton's Impetuousness) Doom the North Korea Summit?"

When it comes to ignorance, there can be little question that the Trump administration is in a league all its own. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for instance, recently referred to Kim as "Chairman Un" (perhaps confusing him with the U.N.), which would be as if someone referred to Pompeo as Secretary of State Mike. Meanwhile, who could claim that new National Security Advisor John Bolton, a man who still thinks the invasion of Iraq (which he championed) was a fine idea and has long called for an American policy of bombing both Iran and North Korea, is anything but impetuous? He's similarly promoted the idea of "eliminating" the North Korean regime in a forced reunification of that peninsula. And yet, I can imagine another headline entirely about that June 12th meeting scheduled for Singapore (despite present bumps in the road on the way there): "Will Trump's Ignorance (and Bolton's Impetuousness) Ensure the Summit's Success?"

Let's start with this: we in the United States have long thought of Kim Jong-un as a madman. In fact, Donald Trump used that very word back when he was still referring to Chairman Un as "Little Rocket Man," a leader on "a suicide mission for himself." That, of course, was before he became, in the president's eyes, a "very honorable" person. Is he, in fact, a grim leader, perfectly capable of ordering the death of his own half-brother? You bet. Is he a madman? I'd put my money on the opposite. I suspect that he's a canny guy with a fairly clear-eyed view of North Korea's sole trump card (those nuclear weapons and the missiles to carry them) and the country's deficits (an economy that, to put it kindly, is struggling in a kind of illegal international nether world).

I suspect that he will arrive in Singapore with a clear plan and will find himself in a room with an impulsive, self-obsessed man easily swayed by praise, flattery, and Obama-topping Nobel dreams. The combination might turn out to be a formula not for "doom" when it comes to a future agreement, but for success, especially since it's clear that the future war Trump and his men are focused on isn't on the Korean peninsula with a nuclear-armed power, but halfway across the world, where Iran is distinctly in their gun sights.

It's easy to forget just how preoccupied we are with, well, ourselves as the ultimate focus of everything. So there have been a million pieces written on Trump and the Korean situation, but it's remarkable how few of them actually focus on the Koreas, north and south. Today, TomDispatch regular John Feffer, author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and most recently Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe's Broken Dreams, does something quite different. He puts the spotlight on Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. What he points out is just how cleverly the two of them have taken control of the Korean situation, playing President Donald Trump like a fiddle, and why, against all odds, that just might indeed lead to a Nobel-worthy result in a world otherwise increasingly gone mad. Tom

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

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 de'tente 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.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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