The War That Never Ends

Photograph by Dan Scavino

After Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un left their Summit meeting in Vietnam resigned to diplomatic impasse, it’s worth asking whether a time of peace and conciliation on the Korean peninsula might still be in sight. Given nearly insuperable roadblocks, could even the most congenial negotiations lead to full denuclearization of the North Korean regime? Is the United States, with all its imperial resources and leverage, willing to concede vital North Korean interests – above all, relief from economic sanctions and peace treaty to end the Korean War 65 years after military stalemate ended with a “temporary truce”?

There are plenty of reasons for deep skepticism, however authentic the good feelings between Trump and Kim since the first Summit in Singapore. Trump’s own negotiating eccentricities, of course, could be a problem, but the pitfalls run deeper. Americans are accustomed to thinking of “denuclearization” as a one-sided affair. The inscrutable North Koreans must show good faith, immediately move to dismantle their nuclear assets, open all military installations to outside verification, and accept on good faith whatever the high-minded Washington diplomats are prepared to offer – after fulfilling their part of the bargain.

That is how matters are framed by the U.S. political and media establishment and, for all we know, how the process is understood by Washington negotiators. The continuing deadlock should come as no surprise, despite how the two leaders supposedly “see eye to eye” and claim to relish each other’s company. Nor should anyone be puzzled that the North Koreans have reportedly done nothing so far to ramp down their nuclear program; in fact to do so would be insanity.

To think that standard imperialist “diplomacy” might be conducive to denuclearization, even at the hands of the ultimate “deal maker”, is to indulge in sheer delusion. Shocking as it might be to the superpower mentality, the North Koreans have life-and-death interests at stake that cannot be finessed away or deferred to a future that might never arrive. If there are real prospects for Trump winning a Nobel Peace Prize, the U.S. will have to grant most or all of the following: a North-South peace treaty, immediate relaxation of economic sanctions, an end to war maneuvers, U.S. troop reductions in the South, negotiations over the “nuclear umbrella” that Washington says is needed to protect South Korea from Northern aggression.

Is the Trump administration actually prepared to negotiate these issues? Could denuclearization – stripping away what most shields North Korea from regime change – be achieved as a product of imperial manipulation? To date the U.S. has shown little indication it is ready to yield anything substantial, even where concessions (notably sanctions relief) would not be too difficult or costly. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have held out a few minor inducements, but little of immediate value.

Trump and Pompeo have implied that economic sanctions could be stiffened further, that war games could be resumed, that troop deployments could be maintained, that regional American nuclear forces could be augmented. That is one way of exerting pressure on the Kim regime to relent, to begin denuclearization. But it is myopic. A North Korean website recently stated that threatening or coercive tactics would not produce any meaningful results. Such tactics are in fact destined to fail, the product of imperial hubris: the North Koreans will never abandon their nuclear deterrent without commensurate (and immediate) concessions in return – a conclusion reached by the U.S. “intelligence community” but challenged by Trump.

Trump and Pompeo want the Kim regime to dismantle its missile and nuclear arsenals, its production facilities and programs largely before any concessions are granted. Such are the familiar rituals of American “negotiating” strategy, recently visible in the case of Iran. As for the long-awaited peace treaty, U.S. reluctance comes from longstanding fear of Korean unification, now a priority of Kim and South Korean president Moon Jae-In, who plan to build strong communication and transportation links between North and South. A peace treaty would, finally, serve to break the hold of Washington over South Korea, while also removing justification for continued troop deployments.

U.S. suspension of annual military excercises – viewed by the North as rehearsal for armed invasion – remains the only (rather small and temporary) concession that Trump has offered, yet even that might become problematic. Many politicians in Washington clamor for a return to the war games, fully aware such provocation would likely sabotage any nuclear deal. In late January a group of 13 Democratic representatives wrote a letter urging Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to resume joint exercises with the South Korean military. For these Dems, led by Rep. Rick Larsen of the House Armed Services Committee, Trump’s meetings with Kim have gone too far: the North Koreans are better subjected to intensified economic and military pressure – that is, more threats and fewer inducements. Larsen’s big campaign sponsors include Lockheed-Martin, Honeywell International, Raytheon, and Northrop-Grumman.

For Larsen, his colleagues, and the corporate media, Trump was also mistaken in referring to the Pentagon maneuvers as “war games” instead of the more tepid “military exercises”. Richard Stengel at MSNBC commented: “Did you notice that Donald Trump didn’t call them military exercises?” Host Katy Tur replied: “No, he called them war games.” Added Stengel: “He’s using the same terminology that our adversaries use.” For her part, CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins commented: “That is language from Pyongyang, not from the United States of America.” One wonders: what language would Stengel, Tur, and Collins use to describe joint Chinese-North Korean military rehearsals, with tens of thousands of troops, off the coast of Long Island?

Everyone outside of Washington knows that any good-faith negotiations toward denuclearization would have to mean rather quick and extensive North Korean relief from debilitating sanctions –clearly Kim’s main bargaining point in Hanoi. With little cost to itself, the U.S. has sufficient economic and technological resources to give Kim’s modernization hopes a boost, unthinkable with sanctions still in place. To date, however, Trump’s approach has been a non-starter: no relief until after the nuclear dismantling process is completed, or is at least well advanced. But that process could take many years.

The North Koreans have already made good-faith moves toward suspending missile and nuclear testing. The denuclearization process itself, should it ever be set in motion, will be extraordinarily complex and protracted – much too time-consuming for the Kim regime to forgo anything in return. Getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile programs would require hundreds of international inspectors to help dismantle warheads, shut down enrichment and production sites, interview scientists, unravel procurement systems, and monitor everything related to military and research facilities.

What, then, about the question of U.S. troop reductions in the South – one of Kim’s longstanding demands? At present there are 28,500 American soldiers south of the demilitarized zone, ostensibly to deter invasion from the North but actually to reinforce U.S. geopolitical presence across the Pacific Rim, keeping in mind the troops’ proximity to both China and Russia. Trump’s position? The Pentagon has assured South Korea that it will not budge from the status quo and has no plans to reduce troop levels on the peninsula. To solidify this agreement, the U.S. and South Korea recently arrived at a new cost-sharing arrangement: the South will pay $900 million yearly to help subsidize U.S. military expenses, consistent with one of Trump’s favorite schemes. If the North is going to denuclearize, this bargaining piece will probably have to be jettisoned.

There is the overriding, often neglected, problem of American nuclear weapons in the region: should the North Koreans eventually move to abolish their arsenal, the U.S. military advantage would be overwhelming. The question is whether the Kim regime would be willing to go along with such an imbalance or, conversely, whether Washington would be prepared to relinquish its taken-for-granted nuclear supremacy. That in turn raises the question as to whether the imperial power might violate all logic and submit to the principle of universality.

Following the Korean War (where President Truman was on the verge of using atomic weapons), the U.S. installed a huge nuclear arsenal on the peninsula. At one point, in the late 1960s, Washington deployed as many as 950 warheads. That arsenal shrunk to about 300 warheads by the early 1980s and then to 100 warheads before it was terminated in 1991. Since then, the U.S. has kept intact its strategic nuclear forces (submarines and bombers) across the Pacific, including between three and six B-2 or B-52 bombers stationed on Guam and perhaps others (secretly) at Okinawa. As part of any future denuclearization moves the Kim regime will probably insist on a good-faith easing of that threat. There is no evidence, however, that the Trump administration is willing to even discuss the matter. Superpowers rarely if ever negotiate with lesser powers on matters of their own nuclear weaponry – disarmament is an obligation simply for others.

The current trajectory seems to be moving away from the likelihood of broader denuclearization. There is even rising clamor in both Washington and Seoul for redeployment of American nukes to South Korea – another would-be victory for the powerful U.S. nuclear modernization lobby, in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Worse yet, there are voices favoring South Korean entry into the exclusive nuclear club, at a time when the technological potential already exists – a move bound to scuttle any Trump-Kim peace deal.

For those hoping to see a final chapter on the Korean War, answers to such questions are not likely to evoke optimism – however deep the “love affair” between Trump and Kim. For the moment, at least, international tensions have been softened. In the end, it is abundantly worth remembering that, in Libya, Moamar Kadafi voluntarily gave up his embryonic nuclear program in 2003, mainly at the behest of Washington. That move was celebrated by foreign-policy “experts” in the West, with promises of peace and security. And just how did the great benefits of denuclearization turn out for the Libyans?

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CARL BOGGS is the author of several recent books, including Fascism Old and New (2018), Origins of the Warfare State (2016), and Drugs, Power, and Politics (2015).  He can be reached at ceboggs@nu.edu.


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