How Donald Trump sold out South Korea while furthering Kim Jong-un’s dream of domination
Donald Kirk says the US president has raised false hopes of Korean reunification but the North Korean leader’s agenda cannot coincide with democracy
US President Donald Trump may admire Kim Jong-un more than he does the leaders of America’s allies. When Kim speaks, “his people sit up at attention,” said the American president. “I want my people to do the same.” Trump was no doubt joking, sort of, but the message was clear. He admires and trusts Kim and wishes he as president could exercise the same authority.
As it is, the White House is emitting mixed messages, sowing confusion among friends and foes alike, raising questions among conservatives and liberals as to where Trump stands, what he wants and what’s going to happen next. He has praised Kim as one who “loves his people” and as a nice person with whom he gets along just fine, but he’s obviously overlooking the downside of one of the world’s most cruel hereditary dictators.
He has also been fooled into thinking Kim is really getting rid of his nuclear programme when he is doing little or nothing about it while attempting to wring one concession after another from the Americans.
One result is that Trump has raised false hopes among South Koreans that reunification is really possible, that Kim wants to show another side of his personality, that he is seriously interested in reform.
Talk of “confederation” of the two Koreas is in the air, advanced by those who think that somehow North and South can survive on equal terms, that Kim would want to get along with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in as an equal with whom he would even agree to share authority.
Watch: Divided Korea – How did we get here?
Trump is partly to blame for raising these false hopes. He persists in boasting of the amazing progress that he made in his conversation with Kim, and he talks as though Kim is ready to bury the past and welcome South Korea as a partner in a spirit of fraternal friendship, shared values and aspirations and a common goal of peace and goodwill.
The record shows, however, that North Korea is back to business as usual, extracting every benefit from the weakness and ignorance shown by Trump in a slow-motion bargaining game reminiscent of the long history of disillusionment and disappointment in deals with North Korea.
First the US called off the joint exercises with South Korea that the commanders of both nations viewed as essential to the alliance. Cancellation of Ulchi Freedom Guardian, held annually in August, may not by itself make all that much difference, but one can be sure the North Koreans will raise a terrific outcry if the US and South Korea decide next year to go ahead with war games normally held in the winter and spring.
Trump and Moon, anxious to put the best face on their relationships with Kim after their meetings with him, will no doubt want to yield to North Korean rhetoric even if the North has shown no sign of living up to anything to do with “complete denuclearisation”.
Watch: Ex-South Korean negotiator says North Korea is coming to the negotiating table with weapons
Second, the North Koreans are hinting that the US and United Nations must do away with some of the onerous sanctions imposed after the North’s nuclear and missile tests. They are saying that they have shown good faith by not holding any such tests since last year while blowing up the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri and promising to do the same to the site responsible for engineering and testing the mechanisms needed to power long-range missiles.
Trump has to know that Punggye-ri was rendered unusable in the North’s last, and biggest, nuclear test last September and that the engineering site has yet to be destroyed.
Trump’s deceptions appeal to liberals and conservatives alike. Liberals are all too glad to see the American president advocating a dangerously soft line towards North Korea. American conservatives love Trump regardless of what he says and does about North Korea.
They are happy about his harsh crackdown on illegal immigration. They applaud his tough trade policies that have angered American friends and allies from Europe to Asia, including both Japan and South Korea, not to mention China, which is now likely to refuse to abide by UN sanctions on North Korea while building up bases in the South China Sea.
Korean conservatives, however, have every right and reason to be disappointed, if not disillusioned, by Trump, a leader whom they had once regarded as strong and resolute in the face of North Korean threats. One cannot blame conservatives, not just the flag-wavers who demonstrate in central Seoul but many more who are aware of North Korea’s record and understandably wary of false promises.
They know from past experience that the North Koreans will whittle away at not just the US-South Korean alliance but also the democratic system under which people have lived in South Korea since the promulgation of the “democracy constitution” amid mass protests in 1987.
There is no way that Kim, a third-generation heir to power over one of the world’s harshest, most corrupt systems, can agree to compromise with South Korean democracy. He does not believe in “live and let live. .He will not permit South Koreans to see for themselves what is going on in his country while he penetrates the fabric of democracy and capitalism that has made South Korea one of the world’s leaders as a prosperous democratic society.
South Koreans have every reason to be concerned about what many see as betrayal of all they have built, while Kim pursues his dream of domination of all Korea, North and South.
Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea