Trump, the peacemaker?
Eddie Ford is sceptical about the recent love-fest between the Korean leaders
Donald Trump surprised almost everyone back in March by announcing that he was prepared to meet in person the “little rocket man”, Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea.
Previously the world had been holding its breath, scared stiff that a conflagration could break out, involving nuclear-armed powers such as China and the United States - hardly surprising, given that at one point Trump was warning that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”. But, with armageddon seemingly averted, on April 30 the US president suggested that his planned meeting with Kim - due some time this month - could take place at the Peace House in Panmunjom, situated right on the border between North and South Korea.1
Of course, last week this was the site for the historic love-fest between Kim and the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in - the latter described by one newspaper as a “left-leaning liberal”.2 On a bright spring morning the two leaders held hands and virtually danced backwards and forwards across the border, whilst a military band played Korean folk songs familiar to people on both sides of the border - before posing for photos with schoolchildren, who presented Kim with a bouquet of flowers. At the closed morning session between the leaders, Kim apparently joked to Moon that he “won’t interrupt your early morning sleep any more” with ballistic missile tests. Who says that Stalinist dictators do not have a sense of humour?
At the end of the day, Kim and Moon issued a joint statement (the Panmunjom declaration) promising to bring “lasting peace” to the peninsula through a commitment to “complete denuclearisation” - a not insignificant formulation - and the formal cessation of hostilities between the two countries, which are still technically at war. This could take the form of a peace treaty possibly brokered by China. The statement went on to say that both South and North Korea “shared the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and agreed to carry out their respective roles and responsibilities in this regard”.
The statement did not specify what Pyongyang expected in return for abandoning its nuclear weapons, which the regime - not without reason - has always regarded, at least up until now, as its best deterrent against suffering the fate of a Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi. Indeed, you can quite justifiably argue that the recent turn of events has vindicated North Korea’s nuclear strategy - without its own weapons of mass destruction, it seems unlikely that the US would have made its recent overtures to the Kim regime.
The Korean leaders agreed to talk regularly by phone and meet more often, starting with an autumn summit in Pyongyang - it’s good to talk. They vowed to work “more closely” on a host of bilateral issues, including reuniting families divided by the Korean war and “improving” cross-border transport links. The “goodwill” measures would begin with a halt to “all forms of hostility” on land, at sea and in the air, at least according to the Panmunjom declaration. Sweetly, the demilitarised zone separating the two countries and the western maritime border will be turned into “peace zones”. Both countries will suspend all loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts, dismantling broadcasting equipment, and will also stop sending propaganda leaflets over the border.
After the summit, Moon said that Donald Trump should get the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the recent talks and negotiations. At first this sounds crazy - a bit like making Jacob Rees-Mogg Europhile of the year or giving Theresa May an award for humanitarianism. But then you remember that the list of past recipients of the prize reads more like a rogue’s gallery, with individuals like Henry Kissinger, FW De Klerk, Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat and Mikhail Gorbachev - Trump would be in perfectly good company.
Naturally, as always, the US president issued a series of tweets, saying “good things are happening, but only time will tell!” and “Korean war to end!” - though speaking later at the White House in a joint press conference with Angela Merkel, Trump remarked that the US was “not going to be played” by North Korea and “maximum pressure will continue until denuclearisation occurs”. Of course, he looked forward to meeting his North Korean counterpart, “which will be quite something” - doubtlessly Kim feels the same eagerness.
International reaction to the summit was largely positive. China - the North’s main ally and by far its biggest trading partner - described the leaders’ handshake as a “historic moment” and applauded the Korean leaders’ “political decisions and courage”. A foreign ministry spokeswoman told reporters that Beijing looked forward to them “taking this opportunity to further open a new journey of long-term stability on the peninsula”. More guardedly, Japan’s defence minister, Itsunori Onodera, stated that Tokyo hoped the summit would lead to “demonstrable progress” on North Korea’s missile and nuclear programmes, and a “resolution” of the regime’s cold war abductions of Japanese nationals - “Japan will be watching closely for signs that North Korea is taking action on these issues,” he said.
Striking a more sombre note, the new US secretary of state and ultra-hawk, John Bolton, warned that no progress would be made without “verifiable evidence” of Pyongyang’s commitment to “complete” and “irreversible” denuclearisation - the Trump administration wants evidence “that it’s real and not just rhetoric”. Previously, in typically Boltonesque style, he had joked on Fox News - “How do you know the North Korean regime is lying - answer, their lips are moving”. He emphasised that the US had made no commitment to remove its military presence from the Korean peninsula and nobody was “starry-eyed about what’s happening here”. But he did go on to remark that if North Korea were willing to allow full and complete disclosure of its nuclear weapons programme, coupled with international verification, then “things could move quickly”.
Post-summit, details have emerged from the office of the South Korean president which indicate that Kim has offered to allow foreign inspectors and journalists to witness nuclear decommissioning ahead of the Trump summit. Kim is reported to have said that “if we maintain frequent meetings” and from the US “receive promises for an end to the war and a non-aggression treaty”, then “why would [we] need to live in difficulty by keeping our nuclear weapons?” Kim was also quoted as saying that, “once we start talking”, the US “will know that I am not a person to launch nuclear weapons at South Korea, the Pacific or the United States”. But, as this paper has pointed out on a number of occasions, the idea that Kim had any real intention of bombing Guam - the US naval base in the western Pacific Ocean - was always nonsense on stilts. Kim is no madman, whatever the mythology pumped out by the western press.
Despite the reticence on the part of top figures within the US administration to go into details about the precise US game plan over Korea, one thing they are all adamant about is that credit for the current situation should go to Donald Trump - a viewpoint assiduously promoted by none other than the US president himself, needless to say. At a rally in Michigan last week he told the crowd: “I had one of the fake news groups this morning saying: ‘What do you think president Trump had to do with it?’ I’ll tell you what. Like, how about everything?” In response, there were chants of “Nobel! Nobel! Nobel!”
What needs to be said is that in Korea itself there is a genuine desire for reunification both sides of the border. The country had been a unified state for many centuries - go back to medieval or even earlier times and you will find a Korean kingdom with a Korean language.
Whatever the genuine enthusiasm among the masses north and south for some kind of a rapprochement, we have to be sceptical about the big promises being made about a peace treaty, full denuclearisation of the peninsular, safety guarantee for North Korea, and so on. The fact of the matter is that Korea is not an independent actor in its own right - the north relies almost entirely China, whilst the south relies on Japan and the US. No surprise then that both China and the US will be intimately involved in these future talks, for good or for bad. Trump might be claiming now to be a peacemaker extraordinaire, but he is equally capable of delivering a devastating war to the peninsular if he decides that this would be in the interests of US imperialism - or perhaps those of Donald Trump himself. It is also worthwhile remembering that we have been here before - with the 2007 inter-Korean summit between Kim Jong-il and Roh Moo-hyun, where we heard many fine words about peace, denuclearisation, etc.
Hence, it is far too early to celebrate the outbreak of peace - what we want, of course, but whether we get it is a different matter. Clearly, at this moment in time, the mass of ordinary people are not the crucial actors in this process: everything so far is coming from above.
2. The Guardian April 27.