After the breakdown of the Hanoi summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim, most of the American press were quick to jump on the opportunity to cover the latest “Trump failure”.
It was an unfair characterization, to say the least.
Some say that the Korean War ended in 1953, and others say that it still continues to this day. I would disagree with both.
The two Koreas were fully at each other’s throats right up until the end of the 1960s. Until then, they had been engaging in border skirmishes, trying to assassinate each other’s leaders, conducting covert raids on each other, killing each other with grenades and mines, and more.
Both Koreas had a 911-like hotline just for reporting suspected spies. The South famously forced a group of criminal and unemployed youth onto an island base to train to become a group of elite assassins to be sent on a suicide mission to Pyeongyang. After the plan was cancelled due to a sudden improvement in inter-Korean relations in the early 1970s, they escaped the island, hijacked a bus to Seoul, and committed suicide with grenades once the bus was stopped by the army.
It would be difficult for North Americans to understand what things were like back then because of how they view the DPRK now. The North Korean Red Cross (yes that was a thing) even sent emergency supplies to the South in the 1980s after widespread flooding.
Until the 1970s, the North had had a higher GDP per capita. Until the 1980s, the North was more urbanized. Until the 1990s there was no noticeable difference in life expectancy.
South Koreans seem to view North Korea as less of a threat now than ever before. Nowadays, kids grow up without bomb drills, air raid drills, or gas drills. Mandatory military service (which, as a Canadian, I have never experienced) is only half as long as it once was.
In North America, it has been the opposite. If I was not Korean, I would have thought North Korea was more of a threat now than ever before. American foreign policy reflects that. In my opinion, if you look at the history of US-DPRK relations, the Americans never paid much attention to North Korea until after 1997.
That was the year when the South had its first “really” democratic elections, at least according to some relatives.
The South, for the first time, tried a more positive approach to the North, with what was known as the “sunshine policy”. It led to the six-party talks, but ultimately culminating in North Korea proceeding with its nuclear testing program. That president’s party has only held that office 3 times, including the current president.
Sometimes it takes three to tango
The current South Korean President Moon is similarly more willing to engage with North Korea. The first Trump-Kim summit really came out of the first historic summit between Kim and Moon, when Kim Jong-Un became the first North Korean leader to visit the South.
It was really interesting to see the North American press split “on partisan lines” as to whether that first meeting between Trump and Kim was a good or a bad thing. I had seen the same thing happen with Obama’s actions towards North Korea, only everybody was on the reverse side of the argument.
Naysayers this time were either mad because Trump was talking to this evil dictator who should never be talked to, or because Trump hadn’t already brought about the complete destruction of the State governing the citizens on the northern side of the peninsula.
It was apparent that it was just an introductory meeting, but to anyone who wasn’t still losing their minds about the 2016 election, it was also apparent that you had to start somewhere.
So they had a second meeting and came to an impasse. Suddenly Trump was a failure whose shortcomings were the cause of continued war and chaos in Korea. This, despite the fact that this was clearly more progress than had been achieved in the entire history of US-DPRK relations.
The prisoners’ dilemma is fairly simple, but might be easy to miss when the focus is on whether Trump is going to start World War III.
Neither the US or North Korea have any reason to trust each other. The fact that Trump insisted on complete denuclearization and that Kim insisted on complete removal of sanctions was a very predictable outcome.
Many experts pointed to US-Vietnam relations as a model for how North Korea might be able to develop economically and improve its international relations. There are still quite a bit of complex dilemmas to solve before that process can even begin.
But it does need to get done before such a process can begin, and it will never get done without attempts.
I don’t say this lightly, but I would characterize these recent summits as the very first honest attempt by the US at peace with North Korea. Trump has a talking point that goes something like this.
“When I talked to President Obama, he told me that the biggest problem facing America by far was North Korea. We would have gone to war with North Korea had I not been president.”
You know what? Like him or not, that is definitely possible. Past presidents saw the prisoners’ dilemma in advance, and so, never really made an honest effort.
The Korea situation is evolving, and the approach that has worked until now would not have necessarily kept working. War with North Korea really did look like a strong possibility a short while ago, but not so much anymore.
The rebuilding of North Korea would have been profitable beyond even the Clintons’ imaginations. Whether by war or collapse, the Americans and the World Bank would have seen a new regime in North Korea as a blank slate to develop as they saw fit and leave the government with debt that would be forgiven later in exchange for access to strategic military positions against China. We’ve seen this game before.
Who knows where Trump goes from here, but the first steps were steps well worth taking, “failure” or otherwise.