[Column] S. Korea can’t rely on people like Trump and Bolton to make peace with N. Korea

Posted on : 2020-06-23 16:23 KST Modified on : 2020-06-23 16:23 KST
Bolton’s memoir has shackled peace efforts and emboldened S. Korea’s far right
Former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton
Former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton

Shortly after the famous “Pedestrian Bridge” talks in May 2018, US President Donald Trump called South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Their conversation went from the inter-Korean summit that had taken place to the site for the upcoming North Korea-US summit. The two leaders reportedly discussed Incheon’s Songdo area -- where the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club is located -- before Moon suggested Panmunjom; Trump agreed and said he would announce it right away. Moon advised him to talk to his advisers before finalizing the decision. The idea ended up being overturned in the process, and the summit ended up being held in Singapore.

In his memoirs, former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton characterized the telephone conversion between the South Korean and US leaders ahead of the Singapore summit as a “near-death experience.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote that he was “having [a] cardiac arrest.” While it was not explicitly stated, Bolton -- who referred to the South Korea-US talks as “South Korea’s creation” -- may have seen the conversation itself as being bent to Seoul’s “unification agenda.”

While the motives behind Bolton’s memoirs are questionable and there is some dispute over their veracity, it also includes a number of passages that shouldn’t be overlooked. As expected, Bolton himself admitted that he initially “hoped” the Singapore summit would be a misfire, and that he despaired when the second summit in Hanoi became inevitable. He proudly wrote about raising the hurdles for North Korea by insisting that it abandon not only nuclear but also biological and chemical weapons as Japanese National Security Advisor Shotaro Yachi had demanded.

While Trump tweeted that Bolton had ruined the talks by mentioning the so-called “Libya model,” circumstantial evidence raises questions over whether he approached the negotiations sincerely as anything more than an “event.” Other passages mention how Trump stayed up all night watching hearings on the Russia scandal during the Hanoi summit, more concerned with whether a deal or a breakdown would be a “bigger story” in terms of covering it up. If this is true, it’s truly infuriating and saddening for those of us who watched anxiously with the Korean Peninsula’s fate hanging in the balance.

Speaking about the North Korean nuclear negotiations in a meeting with experts on inter-Korean relations on June 17, Moon appears to have said the US “couldn’t do it even if the president wants to because of his advisers’ opposition.” But the advisers aren’t the only problem. On Apr. 10, 2018, the late JoongAng Ilbo journalist Kim Young-hee wrote in a “current events” column that “the military-industrial complex and conservative scholars and congressmen receiving their support” represented “veto powers who do not welcome peace on the Korean Peninsula.” In a Hankyoreh piece “Crazy for Peace” published in the June 8, 2020, edition of the Hankyoreh, Han Park, emeritus professor at the University of Georgia, wrote that the US “demonizes” North Korea in order to curb China, build a stronger case for legitimizing the presence of US forces in Korea, and encourage or compel South Korean to purchase US weapons. The essence of the issue lies in this framework and these forces.

Beyond the matter of its internal situation, North Korea’s decision to demolish the Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office in Kaesong seemed aimed at shaking things up with the currently deadlocked nuclear negotiations. But while it may have drawn global notice, it’s a dangerous gamble. Consider South Korea’s situation right now. As South Koreans see it, Kim Yo-jong, first deputy director of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee, whose inflammatory statements in the Rodong Sinmun have recently lambasted Moon and South Korea’s attempts at dialogue, is the same person who was all smiles at summit after summit up until only a year ago.

This unfamiliar new look for her, with its harsh and indecent invective, brings back memories of the Cold War days when North Korea was our “chief enemy.” This has left less room for the proponents of inter-Korean reconciliation and peace who managed to usher the negotiations as far as they got, and it has empowered the Cold Warriors of “hostile coexistence” who have been denouncing the summits and agreements as a “fake peace show.” The same people who have been making unrealistic calls for a preemptive strike (“just hold out for three days,” they urged) or the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons are now pointing and saying, “See, I told you so.”

Self-reflection in order for reactionary press and opposition parties

Bolton’s memoirs also suggest some self-reflection is in order for the reactionary press and opposition parties who have continued to hamper the administration with their references to the US public’s “anger over Seoul getting ahead of itself” and insistence that South Korea keep step with the US. To demand that we follow along with Washington because of the “alliance” even now, after it has become apparent that peace on the Korean Peninsula was never a preoccupation for the Trump-Bolton crew, is to suggest that we ought to align ourselves with Bolton. Ever since the demolition, the right-wing press has been denouncing Moon, picking apart everything down to his use of the word “patience” and insisting that he “disabuse himself of his illusions.”

But they didn’t do the same during the Park Geun-hye administration, when North Korea was firing anti-aircraft weapons at leaflet balloons. Indeed, a Chosun Ilbo editorial from the time on Oct. 16, 2014, stressed that “it requires tremendous patients to sit down with North Korea and achieve an agreement” and that “the important thing is to have principles and a clear direction for carrying on inter-Korean dialogue in the long term.”

They are well aware that while there may be times when punishment is needed, the only real approaches available are patience and dialogue. It’s this kind of flip-flopping attitude under different administrations that results in the press coming under fire and being dismissed as “garbage.”

The administration is going to have to work more actively to manage the situation. North Korea, for its part, needs to avoid crossing the line. That’s the only way to open up the possibility of the two sides assuming more of a leadership role. Must we trust our fate entirely to the hands of people like Trump and Bolton?

By Kim Ri-taek, editorial writer

Please direct comments or questions to [engish@hani.co.kr]

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