It is not often remembered that 65 years after the Korean Armistice Agreement was designed to “insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved”, the Korean peninsula is still at war. A high-level US-North Korean dialogue might end this dangerous situation but that is not what all observers want.
Many American commentators are profoundly disturbed at the very idea of Donald Trump meeting the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. Surprisingly, for well-informed opinion makers in the world’s oldest democracy that is also the world’s only superpower, they fear that the young and inexperienced (in terms of global diplomacy) Mr Kim will take the mature and hard-nosed Mr Trump for a ride. Such misgivings were first expressed in May 2016 when the Republican presidential candidate announced that he “would have no problem speaking to” the leader he now derides as Rocket Man. They are again being repeated two years on.
Long before Mr Trump began trading schoolboy insults with Mr Kim, US presidents like Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barack Obama relentlessly demonised the North as a rogue state run by a dynasty of brutal tyrants determined to destroy Western civilisation. The underlying problem is that Americans have not ceased to think of the world in simplistic black and white terms. There are the good guys and the bad ones. South Korea is good. North Korea is bad. The US stands for justice and fair play. Its opponents are repressive tyrants. Never during all those years of the Cold War would Americans face up to the fact that the two superpowers were locked in a battle for global supremacy. They saw it as a contest between democracy and totalitarianism.
The rest of the world recognised Richard Nixon’s courtship of Mao Zedong as an astute diplomatic manoeuvre to outflank and isolate the evil empire of the Soviet Union. But for Americans, it was a virtuous move to offset a wicked Moscow’s growing military advantage in Europe and the Far East. Similarly, Franklin D Roosevelt’s meeting with Stalin was not seen as an enemy’s-enemy-is-a-friend tactic but as a brilliant move to defeat Hitler.
There is no attempt by Western — especially American — intellectuals to understand North Korea’s nervousness which goes back to 1950 and the United Nations Security Council mandate approving the Republic of Korea-United States Combined Forces Command on the peninsula, and the US nuclear umbrella over South Korea. The North is suspected of conspiring and conniving to dismantle this security arrangement, which surrounds it with hostile forces. There’s a garrison of some 35,000 troops in South Korea more than a quarter-century since the end of the Cold War. This is in addition to the “permanent aircraft carrier” of Guam, naval bases and seaborne troops dotted all over the Indo-Pacific region, and approximately 50,000 military personnel in Japan with 40,000 dependents, and another 5,500 civilian employees of the US defence department. North Korea is also the obvious and only target of the annual joint military exercises between the US and South Korea.
To cap it all, Jim Mattis, Mr Trump’s defence secretary, said last October, “The only way to ‘locate and destroy — with complete certainty — all components of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programmes’ is through a ground invasion.”
No wonder the North views the Washington-Seoul axis with profound suspicion. The US justified its earlier refusal to take up Mr Kim’s offer to negotiate by saying there could be no trust until North Korea gave up its nukes. Mr Kim responded by pointing to Libya’s ill-fated Muammar El-Gaddafi, who was attacked and killed after he had stopped building the bomb and informed the Americans he had done so. Mr Kim might also have mentioned Iraq’s late Saddam Hussain and retorted that even if he did give up his nuclear ambitions, there was no guarantee the US would not manufacture false evidence such as Colin Powell flaunted at the United Nations to condemn him and justify an invasion. There has been no apology from any authoritative American source for that blatant fraud on the world from which the Iraqis and, indeed, all of West Asia are still suffering.
It’s not clear what exactly the Americans want from North Korea. The stated aim is disarmament, but disarmament is an agreed bilateral process that demands reciprocity. Will South Korea – the US protégé in East Asia – also disarm? Will the US? If denuclearisation is the aim, then, too, there must be some reciprocal gesture by either the South or its American patron and some change in the arrangements that the Security Council made at a time when it was entirely an instrument of US policy. Paradoxically, North Korea is accused of belligerence when it doesn’t make (or doesn’t respond to) peace overtures. But it is accused of cunningly laying traps when it does. It is blamed for almost succeeding in persuading Mr Clinton to accept an invitation to visit Pyongyang in 2000. It is also blamed for making what are described as several backchannel overtures to Mr Bush. It is accused of plotting and scheming to demonstrate to the world that only its nuclear weapons have forced American presidents to acknowledge the regime’s legitimacy.
Whatever may be thought of Mr Kim’s governance and his political and economic management (or mismanagement) at home, there can be no peace without dialogue. It’s only the warmongers, who are determined to keep the Cold War going by rejecting all peace overtures. Among them must be counted the US vice president, Mike Pence, whose statements promise that the pressure campaign will continue unabated until the North agrees to denuclearise. Typically, Mr Pence is gloating over the proposed talks as a tremendous American victory. “The North Koreans are coming to the table despite the US making zero concessions” he crowed recently. “Our policy remains the same: all sanctions remain in place and the maximum pressure campaign will continue until North Korea takes concrete, permanent and verifiable steps to end their nuclear programme.”
The Korean peninsula remains a potential flashpoint and a potential threat to world peace. Zhou Enlai, the then Chinese prime minister, suggested during the 1954 Geneva Conference that a peace treaty should replace the previous year’s Armistice Agreement. But that hawk to beat all hardline hawks, the US secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, refused. It may be recalled Dulles called nonalignment “neutralism” and dismissed it as “immoral”. His critics in the US spoke of “Dull, Duller, Dulles”. However ludicrous Dulles may have been, his spiritual heirs are a strong force in the American political establishment. It is to be hoped that Mr Trump will not allow them once again to thwart the chance of a Korean peace.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.