After months of bellicose rhetoric and fears of nuclear war, President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have agreed to historic face-to-face talks. Independent journalist Tim Shorrock and Christine Ahn of Women Cross DMZ discuss the prospects for an agreement and the overlooked role of South Korea in getting both sides to the table
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté.
President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have agreed to historic face-to-face talks. South Korea’s national security advisor made the announcement from the White House.
Chung Eui-yong: Kim pledged that North Korea would refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests. He understands that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue, and he expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible.
AARON MATÉ: The meeting is set to be held some time before May. If it goes through, it would be the first ever between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader. It’s a dramatic turn after months of bellicose rhetoric between the two sides that left many fearing nuclear war.
I’m joined by two guests. Tim Shorrock is an independent journalist who covers U.S.-Korea relations for The Nation and the Korea Center for Investigative Reporting. And Christine Ahn is a founder and international coordinator of Women Across DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War. Welcome to you both. Christine, I’ll start with you. Your reaction to this historic news?
CHRISTINE AHN: It’s nothing short of a miracle. I mean, it really is extraordinary and, I think, the tremendous outcome of very hard and nimble diplomatic work by Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president. We often hear in the media now that this is the result of maximum pressure, the Trump administration’s policy of more economic strangulation of North Korea, forcing other countries to cut off diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, and of course the provocative military posturing, that this is what brought North Korea to dialogue.
And I think that’s a very terrible distortion of what took place. And I think that if that is the true belief, that things are not going to go well it terms of talks because what has changed … I mean, whether you call it “maximum pressure” or, under the Obama Administration, “strategic patience,” that policy of putting and encircling North Korea and putting a maximum pressure has not yielded North Korea to dialogue.
And so, what has is this kind of masterful diplomacy by Moon Jae-in where he truly showed respect to the North Korean leadership when they came for the Pyeongchang Olympics and has really listened and heard North Korea’s concerns about their security concerns. And so I believe that that’s going to be really important for the talks between Kim and Trump to be successful.
AARON MATÉ: Tim Shorrock, if you could pick up on that. You interviewed Moon Jae-in when he was running for the South Korean presidency. Since he’s taken office, what has he done to get us to this moment?
TIM SHORROCK: When I interviewed him, this was about 10 months ago right before he took the presidency, two days before he was elected, he told me in response to critiques of his approach to North Korea from here in Washington … People were saying in Washington, “Well, he’s going to divide the U.S. from South Korea because he’s going to be wanting engagement, and that’s not what Trump wants, and that’s not what the U.S. wants.” And his answer to me was, “If I try to develop engagement and reduce the tension between North and South Korea, and then between North Korea and the U.S., that’ll be good for the United States, and that should be good for Trump and be welcomed by Trump.”
And that was the gamble he took, and he won that gamble. And since he took president, one of the first things he did was to suggest cross-border talks with North Korea on military issues and family divisions, and the North Korean government basically ignored him while they progressed on their nuclear and missile tests. But their idea, I guess, was to complete, as they called it later, their state nuclear force by some time last year, which they did, by testing all these missiles and also testing one nuclear device.
So, by the time January 1 rolled along, they felt that they had built enough deterrence to defend themselves against the United States. And as we all know, January 1, Kim Jong-un made this overture to South Korea, and Moon Jae-in immediately answered by saying, yes, he would like to engage. And the North Koreans offered to send a high-level delegation to the Pyeongchang Olympics, which they did. And during those Olympics, there was deep negotiation between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un’s sister, who was there, and a very high-ranking former foreign minister of North Korea, who was also in South Korea.
And Kim Jong-un’s sister invited Moon to a visit to North Korea for a summit meeting. And Moon Jae-in responded by saying, “I would like to have a summit meeting, but I’m not going to do it until the conditions are right,” and he wanted North Korea to make some kind of concessions on its nuclear tests and its missile tests and to respond to some of the security concerns of the United States before he agreed. And that’s what happened when he sent the national security advisors to North Korea last week, and they met for a couple of days with Kim Jong-un and his top leaders.
And they came back with this deal, which is basically along the lines of the kind of freeze for freeze that was discussed a lot last year where North Korea would freeze its missile tests and its nuclear tests in exchange for a moratorium or a scaling down of U.S.-South Korean military exercises. And what he agreed to was, he agreed that the exercises could continue if they’re scaled down, and that’s what has basically happened.
So, the big surprise here was that the South Korean Moon Jae-in sent a delegation to the White House to meet with Trump and his people, and they brought this invitation from Kim Jong-un to meet with Trump, and Trump accepted. So I think, huge credit to Moon Jae-in. Without his hard work and diplomacy, this would not have happened.
AARON MATÉ: Christine Ahn, and I think this raises a good point, which is that there’s been criticism coming from many circles towards Trump that he didn’t extract any concessions from North Korea before agreeing to this summit. But as Tim just said, North Korea, as a part of this deal to meet with Trump, and as even the South Korean envoy said, North Korea has accepted continued U.S.-South Korean military exercises and more importantly, I think, has committed itself to stop testing until the summit.
CHRISTINE AHN: I think that’s absolutely right. I’m surprised that they didn’t request some kind of reciprocation from the U.S. because it has been a long-standing, I don’t want to say condition, but just some concern from their part, obviously, about the provocative military exercises that include decapitation strikes and other rehearsal for the invasion. But I think that shows very much the seriousness by which North Korea is approaching these talks. Clearly, the Trump administration, I mean, that was obviously huge overture from the North Korean side, but the mere fact that the Trump administration has agreed to engage in dialogue, there must be something else that we have not yet seen that has yet to emerge.
I just think that it’s just incredible, whether it’s from the disarmament community or liberal think tanks, “How dare we allow this kind of dialogue to take place without squeezing more out of North Korea?” And I just think that that does not look at all at the bigger picture of what has been at place, which is an unresolved Korean conflict, which is a historic division between North and South Korea by external powers.
And it takes somebody like Moon Jae-in that understands deeply. His mother is from North Korea. There are millions of separated families. There’s the most militarized border that maintains 1.2 million landmines in the DMZ. There are bigger issues facing the Korean Peninsula, and I think that Moon Jae-in has a holistic view of that. And I think it’s just time for the U.S. media and the so-called experts on Korea to take stock of all the issues.
When we talk about denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, I mean, what about the issues that North Korea’s bringing forth, which is, who introduced nuclear weapons, first of all, onto the Korean Peninsula? South Korea and the nuclear umbrella by the U.S. The use of strategic bombers, nuclear bombers in these military exercises. I mean, there’s just a singular focus and [inaudible 00:10:10] of 20 North Korean nuclear weapons compared to the 15,000 in the world, which is largely possessed by the United States. So I just think that, let’s widen the frame here.
And it’s an opportunity to push for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, but it has to first begin with a conversation about securing the guarantee of North Korea. We know already from the Korean War that they were devastated, 80% of North Korea was bombed to bits. There are reasons, not that I am a proponent of nuclear weapons, but we can certainly understand of all the countries in the world that has sought the pursuit of nuclear weapons for a deterrent, it is North Korea.
AARON MATÉ: Right. And as we know from reporting on North Korean strategic thinking, the example of Libya and Iraq, where in the case of Gaddafi, he gave up his nuclear weapons program and then got overthrown and killed, and in the case of Iraq, it didn’t have nuclear weapons, it got overthrown and invaded. So, that certainly informed Kim Jong-un’s thinking.
Tim Shorrock, in terms of what’s at stake here historically in what Christine is talking about, we often forget, I’m wondering if you could explain this a little bit, how in fact the Korean War has never officially ended.
TIM SHORROCK: No, it ended with an armistice, which is just merely putting the guns down and, in the U.S. case, putting its bombers down. So there was supposed to be a peace agreement, but that never came forth. Instead, the division just became frozen, and bitterness grew between North and South Korea after the Korean War. So, this crisis actually began, I mean, like Christine said, it was the United States that introduced nuclear weapons.
It threatened North Korea with nuclear weapons during the Korean War. A couple times, actually flew lone B-29s over Pyongyang, lone B-29s that the same kind that flew over Hiroshima and Nagasaki to kind of scare the hell out of them. And then, of course, they had what they call tactical nuclear weapons there for years. Some of these nuclear weapons the U.S. deployed in South Korea could be carried on soldiers’ backs, that could be shot on a battlefield. And George H. W. Bush in 1991 withdrew those nuclear weapons from South Korea and a lot of other countries where the U.S. had them deployed, but of course the U.S. Seventh Fleet and the U.S. airbases around the Korean Peninsula, including in Guam, the U.S. has these strategic bombers that do, of course, carry nuclear weapons.
And so North Korea is still threatened by U.S. nuclear forces, and so that’s one of the primary reasons the North Koreans kept on building, decided to build a nuclear capacity. And they began this in the late 1980s, and of course it came to a head in the early 1990s, which was when Bill Clinton, under the Clinton administration, crafted this agreement with North Korea that froze their nuclear program prior to them having a nuclear bomb. That froze their program for about 12 years until the agreement was basically blown apart by the Bush administration in 2002 and 2003.
So, there is a track record of talks and negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea and a lot of lessons that can be learned from that period from the late ’90s to around 2000.
CHRISTINE AHN: Right.
AARON MATÉ: We’re going to talk more about that in part two of this discussion, where we’re also going to get into something Christine mentioned, which is the liberal reaction to this news of a summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. Let me ask Christine Ahn, though, as we wrap part one, if the goal here of the U.S. is to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, is that possible? Is that a realistic goal with this summit?
CHRISTINE AHN: Well, it’s as Moon Jae-in says, that should be the ultimate end goal of a peace process. But as we have known that North Korea’s position has been that they would be willing to give up their nuclear weapons as long as there was a security guarantee, whether in the form of a peace treaty or a non-aggression pact from the United States. And the U.S. putting aside its hostility, whether it’s in the form of the military exercises or the brutal sanctions that really hamper the growth of its economy.
So that’s my concern, is that if we take this certain framework that is being put forward by the media that the “maximum pressure” is what worked to force North Korea to dialogue versus a much more diplomatic fancy footwork by Moon Jae-in that really took into account North Korea’s security concerns and genuine peace overtures, whether it’s in the form of being respectful and listening closely.
I mean, I guess I would hand it to the Trump administration for bringing the two Koreas together because I guess, in the one sense, that when you threaten to totally destroy a country, that would then lead to a counter-retaliation on South Korea because there’s 80 U.S. bases and 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. That, of course, and that, I guess, would force the two Koreas to get together to talk. But my concern with that framework is that that doesn’t look at then the other side of the equation, which is North Korea’s genuine security concerns. If you are going to try to reach a successful denuclearization deal, you must address those security concerns.
AARON MATÉ: All right. We’ll leave it there for Part One, Tim Shorrock and Christine Ahn. Join us in Part Two.