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With U.S.-North Korea talks at an impasse, the Trump administration’s colonial attitude toward the Korean peninsula is threatening the prospects for peace, says Tim Shorrock

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Mate.

The U.S.-North Korea peace talks that began in Singapore appear to be in jeopardy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was due to visit North Korea this week, but president Trump canceled the trip after receiving a letter from Pompeo’s North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong chul. The letter reportedly expressed frustration at the U.S. for refusing to sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. The establishment of a “lasting and stable peace regime” was one of the steps outlined in the four point pledge signed by Trump and Kim Jong un in Singapore. Joining me is Tim Shorrock correspondent for The Nation whose blog, Dispatch Korea, is available at Welcome, Tim.

Let me start with a story in The Washington Post that revealed the existence of this letter from Pompeo’s North Korean counterpart which prompted Trump to cancel Pompeo’s trip. And it’s written by Josh Rogin. And he writes about the letter. He says, “The exact contents of the message are unclear, but it was sufficiently belligerent that Trump and Pompeo decided to call off Pompeo’s journey.” Now, after that, reports emerged in CNN and elsewhere what the letter actually contained. And it was, as I said, this frustration on North Korea’s part that the U.S. was not willing to take steps to end, formally end, the Korean War and establish a permanent peace treaty. So, my question to you is, going back to Rogin’s characterization, is that demand by North Korea belligerent?

TIM SHORROCK: No, it’s not belligerent at all. And in fact, this letter appears to be a restatement of the North Korean negotiating position which has been, from the top, that they want to stay, they will progress toward denuclearization in a step by step process. And one of the first things they want is a peace agreement and as they make steps, the U.S. to take steps toward dropping some of the sanctions, loosening some of the sanctions on them, and proceed into a peace regime and to a peace process. That really works. And then, where North Korea will feel at the end of it that that the U.S. has an enemy is no longer an enemy. And that they can feel they can they can safely disarm and at least disarm their nuclear force.

And you know, if you recall, this is important to remember. Like what was agreed to in Singapore was there was just some broad steps agreed to. And the first two steps, and excuse me while I read this a little bit, the first two points of the Singapore agreement or the Singapore understanding was that the U.S. and the DPRK will “commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desires of their people.” That’s number one. Number two was “the U.S. and the DPRK will join efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula. And to, of course, North Korea and South Korea, that means a peace agreement ending the war.

And so, those are the first two. So, I think North Korea from the beginning assumed that the U.S. would begin moving on those two steps immediately. And in fact, the two sides made some progress in doing that, some symbolic steps perhaps, stopping the military exercises in North Korea, blowing up one of the testing sites and then releasing the remains of U.S. dead in the Korean War. So, some steps have been taken. But when Pompeo went to Pyongyand in June for his first real negotiation on this whole agreement, the U.S. side insisted denuclearization has to take place first before any steps toward a peace process.

And I think as you recall, that meeting did not go well and there were some angry exchanges after that, although the North Korean side kept saying that they appreciate Trump’s efforts to resolve the issue. So, I think from the very beginning North Korea has seen this peace process, ending the war, as as critical to ending what it sees as the hostile policy by the United States, which is its main demand in terms of how it will denuclearize. So, I don’t think it’s any more belligerant than any statement that Trump or Pompeo has sent them them restating the U.S. position. It’s just how this is characterized. Josh Rogin, who by the way, is not on the reporting staff. He is an op-ed reporter, he’s an opinion writer. But apparently, his opinions carry great weight in Washington.

AARON MATE: Probably why he was leaked this story.

TIM SHORROCK: Absolutely.

AARON MATE: So, in terms of that July meeting that you mentioned, let me ask you quickly. The criticism of the North Korean side that we hear often in the U.S. media is that they’ve been disrespectful so far, they’ve been tough to negotiate with. And so, when Pompeo goes to North Korea in July, the critique was that Kim Jong un refused to meet him and that was seen as a sign of disrespect and a lack of seriousness on the North Korean side. Why do you think Kim Jong and declined to meet with Pompeo then?

TIM SHORROCK: Well, I don’t know who expected him to meet every time. But these are negotiations. And so, I think once the the leaders of the two countries, i.e. Trump and Kim Jong un made this broad statement of purpose of what they’re going to move toward, then it was left to both their intelligence services and then the diplomats to pick up the ball and start the actual negotiation. So, I don’t think it was any kind of insult for Kim Jong un not to go. I mean, Trump didn’t go. I mean, there’s not presidential or leadership level talks or high level talks involving the secretary of state of the United States and his equivalent in in the DPRK. So, I don’t think that in itself is anything. I think most important were the disagreements that were openly expressed at that meeting.

AARON MATE: Right. And those were?

TIM SHORROCK: Basically that that the U.S. was insisting on denuclearization before anything can happen. Before a peace process can happen, before any kind of sanctions are lifted, before any movement is made on the U.S. side toward meeting the North Korean demands and requests as part of this. I mean, they say you have to denuclearize. The big issue that people, a lot of observers were expecting when Pompeo went there in July was that the North Koreans would have some a big declaration of all their nuclear sites and where their weapons are and that kind of thing. And there’s even been talk, there’s been discussions of North Korea possibly sending its actual weapons to France or the UK or some other country as sort of a medium step effort move toward total denuclearization.

But none of that happened. I think and part of the reason is that the U.S. wants what they consider this like concrete, irreversible steps for denuclearization before anything. And so, like even like an interim steps seem to be unacceptable to the U.S. until there’s this full accounting of their nuclear weapons or all the way through until this process of of North Korea disarming. And the thing is, North Korea is not Iraq after 2003. It’s an independent, sovereign country. It wasn’t invaded. The U.S. doesn’t have any right to go anywhere. These things have to be negotiated.

AARON MATE: Right, and because of Iraq, North Korea is probably the more defensive knowing what could happen to a country that can’t defend itself.

TIM SHORROCK: Exactly. Iraq, Libya, other countries. That’s part of the issue for them. But the other significant thing about this difference is that South Korea, Moon Jae in’s government has also kind of embraced a step by step process where they always say, “Yes, our ultimate aim is denuclearization but they also want a peace agreement. I mean, Moon Jae in was actually hoping to fly to Singapore at the last day to kind of have this three way declaration of the end of the war. And then there was talk more recently of Kim Jong un going to the September UN General Assembly and that the three leaders could meet there and make a similar kind of declaration.

So, I think Trump’s cancellation of Pompeo’s trip pretty much puts kibosh on anything happening at the U.N. General Assembly. And the U.S. side, including many of the national security officials that are working for Trump as well as the think tanks, all the organizations that are helping to frame U.S. policy and do not want to have a peace agreement at this time. They want to wait until North Korea has given up all their weapons before they can move toward that. And that’s a difference they also have with South Korea. And so, that’s why in the last few days and weeks we’ve seen a lot of analysts and North Korean so-called experts saying, expressing their disappointment in South Korea, South Korea is moving too fast for the United States and its rapprochement with North Korea.

AARON MATE: Right, okay. So, the issues here in terms of the pessimism amongst the U.S. officials about the prospects for a peace deal and their frustration with South Korea, that South Korea is moving independently, was really brought to light in a really interesting piece that recently came out by Daniel Sneider who is a specialist at Stanford University. And he writes, after speaking he says to senior officials in Washington, including some who are directly taking part in the Korea negotiations, that there is a broad consensus amongst Trump’s team. And I want to read you a quick excerpt of what that consensus is.

“First, the foundation of this consensus is a profoundly skeptical view of the possibility of achieving final, fully verified, denuclearization of North Korea, the goal that has been reiterated by the new special envoy. While there are some differences concerning exactly what might be achieved in the talks with Pyongyang, not a single official dealing with North Korea said he believes this ultimate aim is reachable. The only possible exception is the president himself.” That’s the first pillar of consensus.

“The second pillar of consensus,” Sneider continues, is a deep concern that the South Korean government of Moon Jae in, which has driven the opening to North Korea, is no longer bound by the need to move in tight coordination with Washington. Some even fear the alliance itself may be in jeopardy.” And Sneider goes on to write, and again this is based on him speaking to people who are directly involved in the talks and in the Trump administration, that “Washington is prepared to sanction South Korea if need be, if it goes too far away from Washington’s line.” Tim Shorrock, your reaction to that?

TIM SHORROCK: Well, it’s astonishing that U.S. policy has not changed an iota since 1945 since it accepted the surrender of Japan in Southern Korea. I mean, ever since then, the U.S. has been trying to shape Korea the way it wants Korea to be shaped. And the U.S. has always seen moves by independence as problematic from the point of U.S. national security. And this is historical aberration in American policy. I mean, the way we treat South Korea is as almost a colony. And this has not changed. I mean, it’s just incredible to read people like that saying, just assuming that South Korea does not have the sovereign right to try to unify and reconcile within its own country.

I mean, Korea is one nation. It’s a divided nation, it was divided against their will. The whole point of the peace talks with Kim Jong un and Moon Jae in and the Pyongyang Declaration they made in April is to end this war and end this division. And they’re trying to seek ways- what they’ve been asking the U.S. is to lift some sanctions so they can, for example, open the liaison office that they pledged to do in Kaesong, which is just north of the DMZ, within North Korea. And they want to have this North-South office to begin the proceedings in the in the economic and cultural and security path laid out for themselves.

They want to have an office where that can be organized and managed, communications between North and South. But the U.S. has told them that that office building, that new buildings there and that kind of thing would violate sanctions. And so, you have this rift between the United States officials and the think tanks and all the supporters of this hardline policy saying South Korea cannot go its own way. And that’s what I find just amazing, that that policy really hasn’t changed in seventy years of being in Korea.

AARON MATE: We’ll leave it there. Tim Shorrock, correspondent for The Nation. His blog, Dispatch Korea is available at Tim, thanks.

TIM SHORROCK: Thank you very much.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based journalist who spent part of his youth in South Korea and has been writing about North and South Korea since the late 1970s. He just returned from a two month stay in Gwangju, South Korea, where during the Korean president campaign he interviewed South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In. He writes about US-Korea relations for The Nation and the Korea Center for Investigative Reporting.