Today was a big day in diplomacy over there in Singapore. Trump met Kim and their advisers met each other. America has apparently committed to ending joint military exercises with South Korea (for now) and North Korea has started demolishing its weapons testing sites, though only a few so far.
The almost nonexistent relationship between the US and the DPRK is an artifact of the Cold War. One that became obsolete from an ideological point of view in 1992 but has lingered on anyway. This is, of course, because it (much like the Cold War itself in my opinion) was not primarily ideological but rather a contest of rival power poles and alliance networks. In reality, North Korea has remained an issue because it fears the United States and encirclement from their allies but also fears that this unenviable and de facto blockaded position on the world stage would force it to become so subordinate to their giant ally China that their sovereignty might also be indirectly compromised from that direction. If you wondered why a government is so clamped down and beholden in all factors to security concerns this is why. China wants a compliant vassal state protecting its only land border with a US rival, South Korea and the US want to keep affirming their alliance, and Japan wants to stop being used as a testing ground for North Korean weapons demonstrations. North Korea, for all its oddness, really just wants to survive and avoid any kind of regime change operation, be it conducted from their south or, perhaps more indirectly, from their north. When it comes to security actions and goals abroad, Pyongyang is one of the most rational actors around today.
So why is there so much moaning that we are even talking to them directly now?
I have no interest in predicting whether these current talks will be successful or not. Trump is far too mercurial and there will be many established interests in many different countries who will not want these talks to produce good results. I *hope* they start a running dialogue that succeeds in their purposes, but I am not going to yet come out and say they will. They should, however, be given the chance. To increase the chance of them working, much of foreign policy in both major parties in the United States should be figuring out how to bring this about.
But here rises the ghost of Korean War General Douglas MacArthur.
MacArthur began his role in the Korean War with a massive amphibious flanking victory at Inchon, changing the fortunes of the war which up to that point had been largely one North Korean victory after another. His famous hubris led him to build off this victory by driving ever onward without regrouping or securing his position and in frank disregard (which he would convince an initially reluctant Truman to follow with) for China’s determination of keep America off its border. What resulted, in the Yalu Campaign, was one of the US armies’ biggest defeats, perhaps second only in scale to the loss of the Philippines in 1942-something MacArthur also played a role in. The war went from imminent US victory to grinding stalemate, with MacArthur having to be replaced by the more cautious and adaptive General Ridgeway. There would be a ceasefire in 1953, but in technical terms the conflict never would end.
MacArthur returned stateside to play the victim of Washington, the scapegoat of the President. Never mind he himself had advocated for expanding the war into China and the use of tactical nuclear weapons to facilitate this grandiose and mad counter-offensive. Never mind that he had inverted his WWII career by starting out winning and ending up losing. He blamed others and became an icon of the far right which was just then beginning to descend into the howling madness of McCarthyism.
If he were around today he would sound like John Bolton…or your average establishment Democrat. After all, the historic meeting in Singapore had barely made the press when notorious King of Corruption and Popularity, Senator Bob Menendez, said it was a ‘victory for North Korea’ that we had somehow blundered into to our loss. Meanwhile, the old guard of the Democrats (as well as the sociopathic hawk and daily birthday cake quaffing Tom Cotton and his types) have been constantly pushing America’s famously vain and media-obsessed President to take a more hawkish line on North Korea.
Do keep in mind these are the same people who constantly refer to him as a madman and unhinged. Yet they want more war like policies from him as they vote for more and more defense spending increases. Amazing.
These Bolton Democrats are in effect trying to push Trump to his right on foreign policy as well as position them as the ‘true patriots’ who ‘aren’t afraid of foreign countries’ and can say ‘see we told you so’ if something goes wrong. The problem is that policy issues of this size really shouldn’t be partisan footballs. There is no ideological clique driving this policy, such as there was in Iraq, but rather probably just two leaders both seeking a win to legitimize their standing. This seemingly petty reason should not turn us away from the many opportunities that improving relations between DC and Pyongyang could represent. And it should not blind us to the fact that America holds most of the cards in this bilateral relationship, from sanctions to diplomatic relations in the region, and therefore can afford to give a little here and there. North Korea will have little to give up at the opening stages, so I don’t really view it as a failure to diplomacy to scrap the exercises early on.
Furthermore, in a grand strategy perspective, taking bold moves towards ending rivalry with the DPRK might provide proper benefits to American Grand Strategy in the future. The US is far stronger at sea than on land in Asia, and a Korean peninsula working towards reunification peacefully would almost certainly be a de facto neutral nation, allaying both Chinese and American concerns there. The task would be Herculean enough that they would most likely want to stay out of more great power rivalry, giving the Chinese some breathing room on their border and the US the ability to avoid being sucked into a repeat of 1950-3’s land war. Any conflict that might break out would be at sea, where the much more strategically vital Indonesia waits. This would most likely be to American advantage should it happen.
In the inevitable barrage of Norms Nerd commentary which is to follow, who will wring their hands and clutch their pearls about ‘normalizing a regime’, I can say only this: The Kim family and the ruling party have run North Korea for significantly over half a century. Get over it. You will find when you come to accept reality as it is and not as you wish it to be, that it can be much easier to get things done in the field of diplomacy than otherwise.