What’s the reality behind the Trump and Kim circus?

Martin Rowson, 12.06.2018 Illustration: Martin Rowson (the Guardian)

Based on a piece at the US SocialistWorker.org website by David Whitehouse, adapted and updated by JD

As a spectacle, the Singapore summit was a success, with the two leaders apparently hitting it off personally and able to produce a document that, if entirely bland, at least contained warm words about “peace and prosperity” and “complete denuclearisation”.

It all seemed a long way from just a month ago when Trump had briefly canceled the Singapore summit, perhaps to avoid appearing too eager to make a deal with Kim Jong-un.

Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in stepped in to save the Singapore meeting by holding an impromptu second inter-Korean summit of their own. Kim also responded to Trump’s cancellation with a cordial invitation to re-engage when Trump was ready

Despite false starts and endless posturing, all three of these leaders have been impelled by various factors to overcome obstacles to engagement.

North Korea and South Korea have kept moving forward because both ruling elites would benefit from a peaceful end to a 65-year militarized standoff. The process of engagement has raised popular expectations on both sides of the divided peninsula — expectations that neither leader wants to disappoint.

The U.S. showed up to the summit in part because Trump wants a starring role in something … big. More generally, the U.S. establishment doesn’t want its country targeted with a new set of nuclear weapons.

As long as only Koreans bore the threat of casualties, U.S. leaders were content to pour arms into the region and trade war threats with the North. Besides, the presence of a threatening, but defeatable, adversary gave the U.S. an excuse to deploy its most sophisticated military hardware right on the doorstep of its main superpower rivals, China and Russia.

The equation changed last year when North Korea came up with a credible nuclear deterrent. The lesson seems to be: If you want to get the attention of American imperialism, you need a weapon that threatens things it cares about, such as San Francisco. Threatening Seoul won’t do.

Trump’s fair-weather friend Sen. Lindsey Graham spilled the beans on the Today Show early last August when he quoted Trump as saying: “If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong-un from acquiring nuclear weapons], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there.”

South Koreans noticed Trump’s indifference to their safety. One poll last year found that only 9 percent of people approved of Trump’s performance as president.

This public mood bolstered the South Korean president’s freedom to stand up to Trump’s threats of “fire and fury” against the North. In mid-August, Moon Jae-in declared: “Only the Republic of Korea [South Korea’s official name] can make the decision for military action on the Korean Peninsula. Without the consent of the Republic of Korea, no country can determine to take military action.”

Moon has tried consistently to promote engagement between Trump and Kim because of personal conviction, but his decisiveness also seems to stem from the way he came into office. He won a special election last May through the force of a popular movement that brought down his predecessor, Park Guen-hye.

Week after week through the winter and spring of 2016-17, millions took to the streets of Seoul in candlelit vigils because of Park’s corruption, her lack of response to a ferry disaster, and her attacks on workers. Park was a hardline opponent of North Korea and the daughter of longtime military dictator Park Chung-hee.

After Park — and especially with Trump blustering around in Washington — South Koreans were ready for a president like Moon to revive the “Sunshine Policy” that aims toward peaceful reunification of the peninsula.

The “candlelight revolution” may have swept Moon into power, but he and his party aren’t part of any anti-establishment insurgency. The Democratic Party lagged behind the movement with a late endorsement of Park’s impeachment, and Moon has reneged on his promise to stop the deployment of the U.S. missile-defense system called THAAD.

When Trump said in May that the U.S. should consider pulling its 28,000 troops out of Korea, Moon said in the same week that the troops should remain as a counterweight to Chinese and Japanese power — even if there’s peace on the peninsula.

In other words, Moon may oppose recent U.S. threats of war, but he’s in no hurry to get out from under U.S. imperial patronage.

While the Sunshine Policy is about establishing peace, it’s not a left-wing initiative. Sunshine has major backers in the capitalist oligarchy — organized largely in family-run industrial conglomerates known as the chaebol — because the policy promises to match up their investment capital with low-paid Northern workers.

Elite support for the policy was evident as far back as the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, when the Hyundai family bribed Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, with $400 million just to hold the meeting. The South Korean state kicked in another $100 million, in what became known as the “cash-for-summit” scandal.

The Hyundai chaebol was a major driver of an industrial complex in Kaesong, North Korea, which Park shut down in 2016.

Despite Moon’s commitment to capitalist and U.S. imperial interests, he did raise the minimum wage by 16 percent in January — and, most important for the Singapore summit, he has persisted in engagement with the Kim regime.

Policies like this are a major source of his current approval rating, which recently stood at 83 percent.

This popularity is based on raised expectations, including hopes for peace. Young men, for example, have reportedly begun to hope for an end to mandatory military service. Moon thus has extra incentive to press on with diplomacy — in order not avoid disappointing the popular hopes he’s raised, not to mention the hopes of the industrialists.

Kim Jong-un has also raised expectations, North and South, especially since his New Year’s address, which promised engagement with the South and a turn in the North from military investment toward economic development.

Kim’s effect on Southern popular opinion is remarkable. After his performance at his first summit with Moon on April 27, a Southern poll found that 78 percent of respondents trusted Kim — a meteoric increase from a 10 percent approval rating just six weeks before.

Concerned as ever for the continuance of his regime, Kim must care about Southern opinion now, since he is trying to set himself up as a legitimate head of the northern part of a converging Korea.

A shift in youth perceptions of the North is significant, especially since many young people became activists in the movement to oust Park. The new generation, however, has no feeling of personal connection to the North and tends to view it as a backward, separate and hostile country.

Nevertheless, youth opinion shifted dramatically after the April summit. Among freshmen at Kookmin University, for example, “the number of students who had a positive image toward Kim increased from 4.7 percent to 48.3 percent while those viewing him negatively decreased from 87.7 percent to 25.8 percent.” But another poll found that “41.4 percent of young South Koreans still see Korean reunification as unnecessary.”

Kim’s play for southern public approval may have encouraged him to moderate his belligerence toward the U.S., in order to make Trump seem like the odd (mad) man out with his continued warmongering. This aim of appearing as a statesman in South Korean eyes may explain Kim’s measured tone after Trump’s first cancellation of the Singapore meeting.

Kim’s new promise to focus the state’s attention on economic development must also be raising expectations in the North.

During a period of famine in the 1990s, Kim’s father looked the other way while Northern citizens developed private markets for farm produce and other goods. If Kim Jong-un really shifts resources away from military investment, North Koreans can look forward to making even more money from their private efforts.

Meanwhile, soon after coming to power in 2012, Kim embarked on structural economic reforms that provide freedom to managers at the enterprise level — freedom to hire and fire at will, set wages at variance with national guidelines, and cultivate their own suppliers and buyers without going through the national planning process.

These reforms, which mirror the early measures of Chinese economic liberalization in the 1980s, have promoted the development of a new middle class, at least somewhat independent of the ruling party hierarchy. This group definitely has an interest in Kim following through with diplomatic engagement that can open the economy even further.

North Korea’s working class is overwhelmingly desperately poor. Anecdotal reports, including from asylum-seekers who make it into South Korea, suggest that workers harbor intense hatred toward the rich upper layers of the party hierarchy and toward residents of the city of Pyongyang, where wealth is concentrated.

To some extent, Kim seems to be able to use the popular cult of the Kim family to deflect popular anger away from himself — and toward those just a few layers below him. Right now, says North Korea specialist Andrei Lankov, “Kim Jong-un is popular. Everyone supports him.”

Kim wants to keep it that way. The burden of domestic expectations has helped drive him toward the Singapore summit, where he hopes that de-escalation of hostility with the U.S. will bring relief from sanctions — and open up export possibilities, access to international finance, and investment from countries such as China and South Korea.

So both Trump and Kim had strong reasons for being at the summit, but Trump boasts of being the master deal-maker, which made it almost impossible for him to walk away empty-handed, despite his threat to do so if he found Kim uncongenial in any way.

If Trump had left the summit without making a visible effort to find common ground, he would have risked returning the U.S. to the position that George W. Bush created in 2003, when practically all of Asia blamed Bush for the danger of war with North Korea.

In this way, the collaboration between Moon and Kim effectively boxed Trump in. And once he had arrived at the summit, the self-proclaimed master deal-maker could not simply walk away, despite his empty threat to do so.

Trump seems to have gradually realised that a quick denuclearisation deal was not going to happen, and toned down his bombast and bluster accordingly. On his way from Quebec to Singapore, he uncharacteristically lowered expectations in speaking to reporters: “I feel that Kim Jong-un wants to do something great for his people…There’s a good chance it won’t work out. There’s probably an even better chance it will take a period of time.”

The end result, so far, has been widely regarded as a diplomatic victory for Kim – being seen to be negotiating as an equal with the US president. The document that the two leaders signed commits Kim to nothing that North Korea has not previously offered (in the early 1990s and 2005) and – crucially – does not define what “denuclearisation” means, a point of longstanding disagreement between the US and North Korea. Also notable for their absence are the words “verifiable” and “irreversible” – longstanding US requirements for any denuclearisation agreement. It goes without saying that human rights in North Korea do not even merit a mention.

The only real concessions that North Korea has made to date on its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes – a moratorium on intercontinental-range ballistic missile testing and the (presumably reversible) dismantlement of its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri – were announced in late April and had little or nothing to do with ongoing diplomacy with South Korea and the US.

As North Korea would have it, these were actions taken because the country had completed its nuclear deterrent and now wants to signal to the world that it is a mature and responsible nuclear weapons power.

The outcome, for now, is best summed up by Vipin Narag, an expert of the North Korean nuclear programme, quoted in the Guardian:

President Trump said he was going to take away Kim’s nuclear weapons. Instead he legitimised the value of nuclear weapons in international politics.

Even a ‘pipsqueak fourth-rate power’ can bring the US to the table and win if it has nuclear weapons.

It’s certainly better that Trump and Kim are talking about peace instead of threatening war. But this deal is all showbiz with virtually no substance: no sane observer should place the slightest faith in a single word either of these bizarre and deeply unpleasant characters – a con-man and a murderous dictator, respectively – says.



3 thoughts on “What’s the reality behind the Trump and Kim circus?

  1. International Sanctions. Pressure from China. A thought that this odious regime will one day implode, but we don’t know when, as predicted by refugees /escapees from the North. Kim Jong Une knows what happened to East Germany and the former Soviet Bloc.


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