Letter from South Korea

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The handshake in Singapore between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un marked a radical shift in US policy towards North Korea. It was an unfamiliar scene, indeed. For more than 70 years, US and North Korea have been in armed stand-off. During the summit Kim is reported to have told Trump: “Many people will think of this as a form of fantasy… a science-fiction movie.” While the US president declared, “We have developed a very special bond.”

There is no doubt that many in the Korean peninsula are relieved by the end of Trump’s shrill “fire and fury” rhetoric towards the North. As a gesture towards the de-escalation of tensions Trump suspended scheduled military exercises between the US and South Korea. Now the focus is on whether the talks will achieve, in the words of the summit statement, “complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” and “building of a lasting and robust peace regime.”

Not all in the South welcomed the summit. The mainstream right wing party ridiculed Trump for dancing to Kim’s tune. But these met a cold response from the majority of South Koreans who are exhausted by the constant threat of war. This was one of the reasons for right-wing’s meltdown in the regional election which took place on the day after the summit. The thaw has an equal number of detractors in US. Trump’s ending of the military drills, his sickly-sweet photoshoot with Kim, as well as the lack of any specifics on the deal, has been hard for many to swallow.

Because of this, sections of the US ruling class are concerned that Trump’s peace talks may weaken its “East Asian strategy”. Since the end of the Cold War the US has exploited the North Korean “threat” as a part of its aim to check the rise of China. The “threat” was put forward as a pretext to strengthen the US alliances with South Korea and Japan that allows it to station tens of thousands of troops near China’s border. But the US policy toward North Korea had already reached its limitations.

For decades the US bullied North Korea and portrayed it as part of the “Axis of Evil”. Under such circumstances the North set its sights on developing nuclear weapons. It now possesses some 20-60 warheads along with missiles capable of delivering them.

It is ironic that the very US policy of non-proliferation has spurred nuclear armament in North Korea.

The difference between US nuclear capability and that of North Korea is colossal. Trump announced the end of Barack Obama’s policy and has been trying out other options, one of which had been threatening North Korea with “fire and fury.”

Because Trump has less respect for the establishment’s US foreign policy, he was also able to make an extraordinary choice as at the summit. He needed the summit to succeed, not least for US domestic politics. Despite being at the sharp end of imperialism, North Korea’s primary objective is to secure its own place within the global system of capitalist states. The North has long wanted to make a deal that includes “security guarantees”, as well as an end to sanctions and access to global markets.

This is why Kim did not hesitate to grasp Trump’s hand. But there remains many uncertainties. The summit declaration does not include anything significantly different to previous agreements. Moreover, it is more than probable that both sides will provide different interpretations on “denuclearisation” or how it should take place.

A glance into Korean history illustrates the point. In 1992, the US sat across the table from North Korea and suspended its joint military exercise with the South, but these resumed soon after the talks broke down. By the summer of 1994, the Peninsula was on the brink of war. For Trump, the negotiations with North Korea are not about just nuclear bombs and cannot be separated from the much bigger contest with China. The rivalry between the global giants will have significant influence on the negotiations, and will continue to create uncertainty for East Asia and Korean Peninsula.

If the talks fail or if the bickering between US and China worsens, the possibility remains for the situation to once again take a dangerous turn.

Translated by Jong Kim