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Thoughts on the Impromptu Kim-Trump Summit

1. South Korean President Moon Jae-in told journalists a week before the DMZ meeting between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump that it was likely to occur, and U.S. news reports also indicate that Trump’s tweeted invitation to the North Korean leader while in Osaka was not spontaneous.

2. Following Trump’s wild threats after his election to rain down “fire and fury” on the DPRK (and thus the entirety of the Korean Peninsula), South Korea and North Korea quickly joined together in an effort to cope with an obviously unstable, dangerous new world leader who could annihilate the whole Korean nation. In February 2017 a South Korean delegation delivered a letter from the North Korean leader to Trump proposing talks. South Korea has since played a de facto mediating role between the U.S. and Pyongyang, Moon repeatedly meeting with Kim and the two apparently coordinating relations with Trump.

3. Trump’s visit to Seoul after the Osaka G-20 summit had been announced in advance. Moon may himself have suggested that during the trip Trump meet Kim at the DMZ to indicate support for the ongoing process of normalized relations between north and south. (The U.S. press downplays or doesn’t grasp the significance of the two states’ declaration of the end to the state of war between them, and the launching of initiatives for rail links and expanded trade ties. Some pundits complain that South Korea is attempting to circumvent U.S. sanctions on the north. Pyongyang notes that since Seoul must obey the U.S., its own negotiations with the U.S. must be one-on-one, not mediated by the south.) Moon looked very pleased posing for photos with Kim and Trump at the DMZ.

4. Every student of Korean history knows that Korea’s fate has been largely determined by the relations between larger, more powerful neighboring nations: China, Japan and Russia. Since it occupied the southern part of the Korean Peninsula in 1945, the U.S. has also shaped that fate. China has been Korea’s historical protector, patron, and teacher; its ties with Korea are “as close as lips and teeth.” Japan has been Seoul’s antagonist, from the Wako pirate raids of the medieval period and the horrific Hideyoshi invasion in the 1590s to colonization in the twentieth century; Tokyo for its part has viewed Korea as “a dagger aimed at the heart of Japan.” Russia has been an opportunistic imperialist, hosting the Korean king in its Seoul legation in the 1890s during a period of instability, seeking trade advantages, installing Kim Il-song in the north in 1945.

All have an interest in maintaining stability on the peninsula. China dreads the prospect of a refugee crisis caused by war, and the reunification of Korea on U.S. imperialist terms. Russia is less concerned but keen on restoring full trade ties with both Koreas, and Putin is cultivating a reputation as a thoughtful statesman striving to facilitate peace (the Astana and Minsk processes, for example). So I would not be surprised if Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin, or both, urged Trump to reach out again to Kim. They are no doubt saying: “Look this is our part of the world; North Korea is much closer to us than you and its nukes threaten us more than you. But you scare us more than the DPRK. We too want disarmament, we just want no more wild threats but rather calm protracted negotiations.”

5. The U.S. media’s general dismissal of the DMZ photo opportunity—as a mere political stunt producing no substance other than to unnecessarily elevate Chairman Kim’s stature in the world—is driven by anti-Trump sentiment rather than a critical examination of its meaning. An MSNBC talking head just stated that if the U.S. accepts a freeze on the DPRK nuclear program, that would change the balance of power in the region and pose an immanent threat to the United States. This remains the norm in televised analysis. Increasingly Trump is depicted as a threat to national security due to his “coddling of dictators” or unwillingness to confront them, Hillary Clinton-style (in Syria). He’s accused of being unpredictable, mercurial, spontaneous, rude to his subordinates and dismissive of their advice. But worst of all from some critics’ standpoint is his failure to maintain the status quo requiring ongoing confrontation.

One doesn’t hear common sense: that this was a rational friendly gesture towards a country that Trump has rationally decided not to attack.

6. The absence of John Bolton, assigned to diplomatic tasks in Mongolia, suggests that Trump wanted to message Kim that, yes, he had heard the DPRK Foreign Ministry’s criticisms of that war-monger and wanted to signify a departure from Bolton’s belligerent line. That the U.S. press would leak the information that Trump might accept a nuclear freeze by the DPRK in return for some sanctions relief, and that Bolton would immediately respond with an angry tweet dissociating himself from that position, suggests that Bolton is on his way out, which can only be good.

7. Is it not obvious that the South Korean state, with twice the North’s population and many times its GDP, and a huge well-equipped military, does not require the presence of 25,000 U.S. troops and the visitation of nuclear-armed aircraft carriers to defend it from the north, which hosts no foreign troops? Shouldn’t the world support the demilitarization of the Korean Peninsula, and its peaceful gradual reunification? U.S. pundits want us to believe that U.S. troops everywhere in the world maintain “security” and “stability” and “defend our national interests.” (The latter should be understood to mean corporate interests, and geopolitical interests centering on capitalist profit.) But the Korean people would just as soon be left alone to work out their historical reconciliation, or assisted by interested parties (like the U.S. and China) in achieving that end. Trumps visit to the DMZ was welcomed by north and south Koreans, causing all to breathe easier.

The fact that Bolton (once described by North Korea as “human scum”) was 1200 miles away in Mongolia was additionally comforting.

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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