The thaw between North and South Korea at the Olympic Games culminated in an invitation to Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang. But the Trump administration’s militarism in the region could stand in the way, says professor Christine Hong
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The Winter Olympics continue to raise hopes of peace on the Korean Peninsula. During her historic visit to South Korea, the sister of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang at an early date. The sister, Kim Yo-jong, is the first member of the North Korean ruling family to visit South Korea since the Korean War. US Vice President, Mike Pence, followed that overture with an interview suggesting the US is open to talks with North Korea. But speaking today in Cairo, Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, appeared to walk that back.
REX TILLERSON: It’s too early to judge, as we’ve said for some time, it’s really up to the North Koreans to decide when they’re ready to engage with us in a sincere way, a meaningful way. They know what has to be on the table for conversations. We’ve said for some time that I think it’s important that we have, we’re going to need to have some discussions that precede any form of negotiation to determine whether the parties are in fact ready to engage in something that’s meaningful in order for us to then put together the construct of a negotiation. So, we’ll just have to wait and see.
AARON MATÉ: Joining me is Christine Hong, associate professor at UC Santa Cruz and board member of the Korea Policy Institute. Welcome Professor Hong. Let’s start with this latest overture and the continued thaw of relations between North and South on display at the Olympics. This invite to the South Korean President to Pyongyang. Your thoughts on that?
CHRISTINE HONG: Yeah, I mean, this is yet another moment in which we have a very odd triangulation happening. We have a liberal president in South Korea, we have the possibility of inter-Korean rapprochement and negotiation and then we have a hard liner in the White House. And so, this is the kind of redux of the George W. Bush era, but with significant differences. And so, right now the question is, we have Moon Jae-in, the South Korean President, who was deputized by the South Korean people, who took to the streets in millions during these candlelight vigils to oust his neoconservative predecessor, who actually maintained a very hard line toward North Korea. He was deputized by the Korean people to actually push for negotiations with the North and to walk a road toward peace and reunification. That is not in the interest of the United States.
And so, all this media coverage that we have heard in the Western corporate media, which is basically that North Korea is attempting to drive a wedge between the historic US and ROK alliance, making it seem as though the natural relationship is between the United States and South Korea. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you look at the larger historical picture, it’s actually the United States that has consistently driven a wedge between the two Koreas and there is the risk of that happening once these Olympics and the Paralympics are over.
AARON MATÉ: So, when you talk about how a reconciliation between North and South is not in the US interest, I mean, the US government would certainly say that, but why do you think they actually think that? Because certainly it would be in theory in the interest of the US people to see peace in North Korea, I presume. I mean, nobody wants to have the threat of nuclear war anywhere.
CHRISTINE HONG: You know, I mean, this is, you know, you’re absolutely right. If the United States were absolutely serious about trying to arrive at a peaceful solution to the current nuclear crisis, the United States would be open to the kind of overtures that North Korea is making to the South. The United States would be open to the overtures that North Korea has made toward the United States, which is to say that North Korea from the Obama administration onward has offered to the United States the possibility of freezing its nuclear weapons program, to freezing any further tests, using any further developments in exchange for the United States freezing its war games with South Korea that simulate invasion of North Korea, the decapitation of its leadership, as well as a nuclear first strike on North Korea. So, if the United States were truly open to that, it would actually go to the missing part of Trump’s North Korea policy. He has stated that his policy is maximum pressure and maximum engagement.
We’ve seen absolutely no engagement and there are many reasons for this. Historically in the post-cold war period, you have to wonder why it is that this Cold War enemy of the United States hasn’t been permitted in terms of US policy to come out of the cold. And the fact of the matter is, is that the United States in the post Cold War period, and this was articulated in a various and pronounced way during the Obama period, has viewed North Korea as a very convenient enemy. It’s through this sort of announced threat of North Korean nukes that the military industrial complex is able to secure weapons sales throughout the region.
And Donald Trump has played, like when he went on his Asia tour, he was a war merchant. He was trying to sell US weapon systems, missile defense systems, et cetera. And it’s a way of being able to move US military equipment, hardware troops into the Asia Pacific region. And through this ruse of a dangerous North Korea, which spends a mere fraction, a drop in a pond or the ocean of what the United States spends on its military. Through this ruse the United States has been able to encircle China. And so, North Korea serves a very key geo-strategic purpose with regard to US foreign policy within the region.
AARON MATÉ: Right. But the conventional pushback to that, that you’ll hear from both people who served in the Obama administration and now under President Trump, is that the reason to keep North Korea in the cold is because of their systemic human rights violations, the forced labor, child laborers, torture in prisons and that to engage with them would be to reward the regime.
CHRISTINE HONG: No, I think that we need to have, especially in the Trump era, we need to have a far more nuanced human rights portrait. And you know, like during the George W. Bush era, human rights became a kind of rallying cry around which the various members of the Bush administration pushed for interventionist war in different countries and indeed pushed for regime change. And you know, the idea was that with regime change, somehow democracy and peace would reign. When we look at different examples, when we look at Iraq and we look at Libya, democracy and peace don’t reign in the wake of these humanitarian interventions. In fact, in the wake of these humanitarian interventions, we see humanitarian catastrophe and total destabilization. With regard to…
AARON MATÉ: And let me also say quickly, that we also know that in the wake of these military interventions in Iraq and Libya, we know that that factors heavily into the North Korean government’s thinking because it wants to preserve its regime. So accordingly, its developed its nuclear program according to reporting by multiple outlets as a result of seeing what happened in Iraq and Libya.
CHRISTINE HONG: You’re absolutely right. Those are object lessons for North Korea. It can see that the United States under both a neoconservative President George Bush, as well as a liberal interventionist, President Barack Obama, basically perpetrated regime change and totally destabilized those particular societies. And what I would add to that too is that with regard to North Korea, North Korea has taken a self defensive, militarized posture because it has been in the cross hairs of the US war machine going back to the middle part of the 20th century. The United States has threatened North Korea with nuclear annihilation multiple times. And from the George W. Bush era onwards, George W Bush mentioned during his administration, North Korea is explicitly named in the nuclear posture review as a permissible target for a nuclear first strike. And so, I want to say a couple of things about this, which is that North Korea has actually stated through its media organ, the… international media organ, that having to be in this permanent defensive posture hurts the human rights of its people.
And so, basically you have the Trump administration and many US presidential administrations before Trump leveling the most intense and thorough sanctions packages that actually are aimed not at, they’re not a surgical strike against the leadership in North Korea. They’re not a surgical strike against the nuclear program of North Korea. They are collective punishment against the North Korean people. Things like coal, things like seafood, things like lead, all of those things have been sanctioned. This is aimed at bringing the society to heel.
AARON MATÉ: Right. Speaking of which…
CHRISTINE HONG: And one other thing that I’ll just say too, is that the risk that we have right now is that Donald Trump’s America first policy is truly a military first policy. And the risk, the biggest human rights threat that we face right now is that of Trump leading us into aggressive war against North Korea. And that is the crime of crimes in the human rights regime.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. So, as we wrap, you mentioned sanctions. And in fact, before Mike Pence made those comments about possibly being open to talks with North Korea, he had announced that the US was about to impose the toughest sanctions on North Korea ever. But let me ask you finally, if these talks between North and South do go through, what areas of cooperation and just what openings do you see? It was actually two years ago this month that South Korea ended cooperation over an industrial park in North Korea, which was a big issue. And if they do want to resolve these issues in good faith, how far can South Korea go without the US green light?
CHRISTINE HONG: You know, I mean, that is the million dollar question. What you have in South Korea, South Korea as a country that hosts approximately 30,000 US troops and that is the site of approximately 80 US military installations. According to its mutual defense and security treaties with the United States, the United States military can use at whim and at will any naval or military base within South Korea. And South Korea, also during times of heightened war, the United States has command control over the South Korean army. So, what you’re really looking at is South Korea as a semi sovereign country and the question that you’re posing is, to what degree can a semi sovereign country broker peace with the North? At some point the United States is the key missing part of the triangle and the United States has to be willing to entertain the possibility of peace. So, the question that you’re really asking is, will the Trump administration, which has in terms of word, indeed, signaled that it’s willing to launch an aggressive war against North Korea? Will it be willing to broker peace?
AARON MATÉ: We will leave it there. Christine Hong, associate professor at UC Santa Cruz and board member of the Korea Policy Institute. Thank you.
CHRISTINE HONG: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.