Liberals Are Criticizing the Korea Summit From the Right. Here’s Why They Have it All Wrong.

With an end to the 68-year Korean War finally in sight, some U.S. “progressives” are pushing Trump to be more hardline--despite the fact that Koreans overwhelmingly want peace.

Sarah Lazare

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow introduces herself to the crowd prior to taping her town hall special on January 27, 2016 at Holmes STEM Academy in Flint, Michigan. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Poll after poll shows that the 51 mil­lion res­i­dents of South Korea over­whelm­ing­ly want an end to the 68-year Kore­an War — which the Unit­ed States is still offi­cial­ly involved in. A recent sur­vey found that 88.4 per­cent of South Kore­ans sup­port the April 27 joint peace dec­la­ra­tion by North Kore­an leader Kim Jong-un and his South Kore­an coun­ter­part, Moon Jae-in. And 81 per­cent of South Kore­ans expressed opti­mism about the Trump-Kim summit. 

"It is very dangerous to pressure Trump to be hardline."

Despite wide­spread con­cerns that U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump would tor­pe­do an his­toric oppor­tu­ni­ty for peace — includ­ing through his repeat­ed threats to anni­hi­late the entire Kore­an Penin­su­la with nuclear weapons — this worst-case sce­nario has not yet come to pass. When North Kore­an leader Kim Jong-un met with Trump in Sin­ga­pore on June 12 and etched out a four-point agree­ment, the reac­tion in South Korea was large­ly a sigh of relief. Kore­ans see the Sin­ga­pore sum­mit not just as anoth­er sen­sa­tion­al episode in the sto­ry of Don­ald Trump but as a step away from a six­ty-eight-year-old unfin­ished war,” writes E. Tam­my Kim for The New York­er.

Yet, there is a yawn­ing gap between the opti­mistic mood in South Korea and the response among lib­er­al media cir­cles in the Unit­ed States, where many are react­ing with a mix of sanc­ti­mo­ny and scorn. On June 12, Kevin Drum pub­lished a piece in Moth­er Jones in which he accused Trump of aban­don­ing” South Korea and agree­ing to a weak deal. Vox echoed this line with rebukes of a shock­ing­ly weak” agree­ment that includes huge con­ces­sions to Kim for lit­tle in return.” MSNBCs Hal­lie Jack­son accused Trump of com­plic­i­ty in the pub­lic rela­tions makeover of a dic­ta­tor. And pop­u­lar host Rachel Mad­dow released an episode on June 12 argu­ing that Trump’s pledge to halt war games in South Korea is a give­away to N. Korea” that suits Putin’s goals” — dis­re­gard­ing that robust social move­ments in South Korea have protest­ed the U.S. mil­i­tary pres­ence for decades. 

These refrains were repeat­ed by Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­ers, includ­ing Reps. Nan­cy Pelosi and Adam Schiff, who released a joint dec­la­ra­tion ahead of the sum­mit crit­i­ciz­ing Trump from the right by accus­ing him of not being a tough enough nego­tia­tor. In this cli­mate, the lib­er­al” line is vir­tu­al­ly indis­tin­guish­able from the hand-wring­ing of offi­cials from pro-war think tanks” like the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies, which receives major fund­ing from weapons manufacturers. 

How­ev­er, there were impor­tant excep­tions. Sen. Bernie Sanders released a state­ment on June 12 prais­ing the Sin­ga­pore sum­mit as a pos­i­tive step in de-esca­lat­ing ten­sions between our coun­tries, address­ing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and mov­ing toward a more peace­ful future.”

For com­men­tary on the U.S. polit­i­cal cli­mate, In These Times spoke with Chris­tine Ahn, a South Korea-born, Hawaii-based peace activist has been orga­niz­ing to end the Kore­an war under the admin­is­tra­tions of Trump, Barack Oba­ma and George W. Bush (This is one of a series of interviews). 

Ahn says she is frus­trat­ed and dis­cour­aged that many U.S. estab­lish­ment lib­er­als are deeply dis­con­nect­ed from the decades-long peace strug­gle led by South Kore­ans. Any peace deal must nec­es­sar­i­ly involve the Unit­ed States, and unless U.S. pro­gres­sives want to con­demn the Kore­an peo­ple to anoth­er two to six years of mil­i­tary esca­la­tion, Trump will have to be involved in that process. Giv­en Trump’s proven will­ing­ness to turn on a dime and engage in dan­ger­ous brinkman­ship with North Korea, she argues, it is espe­cial­ly reck­less for self-pro­fessed lib­er­als to pres­sure the pres­i­dent to be more con­fronta­tion­al. It is very dan­ger­ous to pres­sure Trump to be hard­line,” says Ahn. We have to put all of our efforts into ensur­ing this goes well and is not undermined.”

Sarah Lazare: Can you tell me why you are frus­trat­ed with the response among lib­er­als and the left in the Unit­ed States to the Trump-Kim meet­ing in Sin­ga­pore on June 12?

Chris­tine Ahn: I was just in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. to help orga­nize the Korea Peace Net­work Advo­ca­cy Day — about 100 activists from around the coun­try came togeth­er to advo­cate for chang­ing U.S. pol­i­cy. It just hap­pened to coin­cide with the June 12 sum­mit in Sin­ga­pore. We were so thrilled with the out­come of the meet­ing, even though it was thin on con­crete action. This was the first time a North Kore­an and Amer­i­can leader sat down and shook hands and declared a new era for U.S.-DPRK relations.

I was incred­i­bly frus­trat­ed by going around the capi­tol yes­ter­day talk­ing to the offices of mem­bers of Con­gress and also the quick knee-jerk reac­tion from lib­er­als and left. Peo­ple said, How could we sup­port engage­ment and diplo­ma­cy — this amounts to approv­ing Don­ald Trump.” I was on the Joy-Ann Reid show, and the whole fram­ing was about how Trump just met with the G7 and trashed France and oth­er allies, and now he was going to North Korea to meet with a dictator.

Can we stay focused on how this is an incred­i­ble moment for the Kore­an peo­ple? This is about end­ing a sev­en-decade war with a coun­try the Unit­ed States has been at war with. The Unit­ed States has been an obsta­cle to peace for Korea and was respon­si­ble for divid­ing the penin­su­la. That peo­ple in the Unit­ed States don’t under­stand this is a sign that the Kore­an-Amer­i­can pro­gres­sive com­mu­ni­ty has failed to get nuanced per­spec­tive out there that ties the sit­u­a­tion on the Kore­an penin­su­la with U.S. com­plic­i­ty. It’s so frustrating.

Sarah: What’s the reac­tion in Korea to the meet­ing and to the peace process overall?

Chris­tine: Eighty-eight per­cent of South Kore­ans sup­port the recent peace dec­la­ra­tion between North and South Korea which says we’ve end­ed the Kore­an War and we’re start­ing a new era. I just came back from South Korea where women were say­ing, Could you please tell the Amer­i­can peo­ple and inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty that we want peace. Please could you pres­sure your gov­ern­ment and silence the hard­lin­ers who are try­ing to derail this process for us?”

Isn’t that rea­son enough to sup­port the peace process? We’ve allowed par­ti­san pol­i­tics to get in the way. Democ­rats don’t want to give a bone to Trump because it might impact the midterm elec­tions. That’s just killing me.

Sarah: Giv­en how volatile and dan­ger­ous Trump is, it seems to me that if you don’t trust him, you should do every­thing you can to make sure that he doesn’t derail the peace process. This is the same per­son who casu­al­ly threat­ened to anni­hi­late the entire Kore­an penin­su­la with nuclear weapons, yet now some Democ­rats are pres­sur­ing him from the right. Do you think this is dangerous?

Chris­tine: It is very dan­ger­ous to pres­sure Trump to be hard­line. We have to put all of our efforts into ensur­ing this goes well and is not under­mined. Look who’s in Trump’s cab­i­net: John Bolton, Mike Pom­peo, and tomor­row is the con­fir­ma­tion meet­ing for Har­ry Har­ris, the for­mer head of Pacif­ic Com­mand — a mil­i­tary man with a hard­line posi­tion against Chi­na and North Korea, now like­ly the new ambas­sador to South Korea.

If things don’t go well, we are in an incred­i­bly dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion. We saw that Lind­sey Gra­ham ask the sev­en Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tors to join him in autho­riz­ing the use of mil­i­tary force against North Korea if this process does not succeeed. 

Talk­ing with var­i­ous mem­bers of Con­gress on the Hill, I got the mes­sage that they oppose this but they don’t have any path to suc­cess — and they oppose this because they don’t trust Trump. There’s this trope that we don’t engage with dic­ta­tors. Real­ly — we don’t engage with oppres­sive regimes? What about Sau­di Ara­bia and Israel? The hypocrisy is just beyond the pale.

Democ­rats are attack­ing Trump from the right and stick­ing to this hard line of no dia­logue, no engage­ment. This is the same line that was used against the Iran Deal. When I went to meet with Nan­cy Pelosi’s office, I felt like I was deal­ing with the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion. They had this line of, We’re not going to engage until there’s com­plete, ver­i­fi­able, irre­versible denu­cleariza­tion.” That approach of strate­gic patience got us nowhere except a nuclear armed North Korea.

The glim­mer of hope is that some law­mak­ers put out mea­sured state­ments, includ­ing Bernie Sanders.

Sarah: Can you talk about the long strug­gle for peace in Korea?

Chris­tine: For years, orga­niz­ers have faced repres­sion in South Korea, where they didn’t have the first demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­tions until 1987. The demo­c­ra­t­ic upris­ing in Gwangju was crushed by U.S.-backed dic­ta­tors and gen­er­als. We know from Tim Shorrock­’s inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism that the Unit­ed States gave the order to send para­mil­i­tary troops from the demil­i­ta­rized zone to Gwangju to quash the demo­c­ra­t­ic upris­ing led by stu­dents and ordi­nary people. 

Peo­ple in the Unit­ed States have no idea of the kind of gross role that the Unit­ed States has played main­tain­ing hege­mo­ny in the region or the Kore­an Penin­su­la. The Cold War and McCarthy­ism first land­ed and pro­ceed­ed on the Kore­an Penin­su­la, and it has nev­er end­ed because the war has nev­er ended.

In orga­niz­ing the DMZ cross­ing in 2015, one of the largest South Kore­an left-lib­er­al wom­en’s asso­ci­a­tions did­n’t feel they could come out and be with us because of the repres­sion under Park Geun-hye. Only a hand­ful of the wom­en’s groups had the courage.

Sarah: Can you explain what’s at stake and why the Unit­ed States has the pow­er to impact the Kore­an peace process?

Chris­tine: The last time there was a sun­shine era, progress between North and South Korea was great­ly lim­it­ed and impact­ed by U.S.-DPRK rela­tions. In 1998, Kim Dae-jung took office in South Korea and set off to pur­sue the sun­shine pol­i­cy of engage­ment with North Kore­an. In 2000, he signed the his­toric June 15 agree­ment with Kim Jong-il and set out to begin the process of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. This includ­ed three major com­po­nents: fam­i­ly reunion, civ­il soci­ety engage­ment and eco­nom­ic exchanges. When George W. Bush was elect­ed, Kim Dae-jung asked for U.S. sup­port. Instead, he got the door slammed on him. Soon after, North Korea land­ed on George W. Bush’s axis of evil. Instead of try­ing to improve rela­tions with North Korea, South Korea was try­ing to stop the Unit­ed States from going to war with North Korea.

It is a huge obsta­cle to peace if the Unit­ed States is at war with North Korea because the Unit­ed States and South Korea have a mutu­al defense treaty where the US has wartime oper­a­tional con­trol over the South Kore­an mil­i­tary. Every time the war games go on, North Korea goes into a state of pan­ic. We tend to view the war games as benign, but they’re not. There’s such a dis­tor­tion: U.S. pun­dits say this is just rou­tine and North Korea should not view them as a threat. But the war games include B‑52 bombers that fly from Guam. They include more than 300,000 sol­diers from the Unit­ed States, Aus­tralia, Japan and oth­er coun­tries that sim­u­late the inva­sion of North Korea. Of course that’s going to impede peace.

We also have to con­sid­er the impact of U.S. sanc­tions and U.S.-led UN sanc­tions. I want to make sure the U.S. left under­stands that the Unit­ed States has had a huge role on this state of con­di­tions in both North and South Korea, from the his­toric divi­sion of the penin­su­la to the mil­i­tary and eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy against North Korea. The Unit­ed States is com­plic­it in the con­di­tions on the penin­su­la that have cre­at­ed an ongo­ing state of war that has enabled the growth of a repres­sive gar­ri­son state in North Korea. We can’t divorce that from the real­i­ty on the ground in North Korea. This line, How dare our demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­dent sit down and meet with a dic­ta­tor who is starv­ing his own peo­ple,” is per­pet­u­at­ing nar­ra­tives and myths about North Korea from the right wing. This line comes straight from the Amer­i­can Enter­prise Insti­tute and Her­itage Foundation.

Did you know that 13.1 mil­lion chil­dren in the Unit­ed States face food inse­cu­ri­ty? Did you know we have mass sur­veil­lance of the pop­u­la­tion, sys­tem­at­ic dis­crim­i­na­tion against peo­ple of col­or and a mas­sive prison pop­u­la­tion? U.S. excep­tion­al­ism is not will­ing to put a mir­ror on this coun­try, but trains the impe­r­i­al gaze on oth­er countries.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue