The Overlooked Past Behind U.S.-North Korea Tensions & How South Korea Could Forge Peace
Christine Hong of UC Santa Cruz and the Korea Policy Institute discusses the overlooked history behind U.S.-North Korea tensions and says the best hope for resolving them is a progressive government in South Korea willing to engage.
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté.
Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are rising. North Korea has warned the U.S. that sending a Navy strike group, including the aircraft carrier Karl Vincent to the Korean Peninsula, could lead to war. North Korea’s official newspaper said its, quote, “nuclear sight is focused on U.S. forces and the U.S. mainland.”
A new ballistic missile test last week is said to have prompted the Trump administration’s move, sending a U.S. Navy force into the area. In a Twitter post President Trump said, quote, “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them. USA.”
Joining us is Christine Hong, Associate Professor at UC Santa Cruz. She is on the executive board of the Korea Policy Institute. Welcome, Professor Hong.
CHRISTINE HONG: Thanks, Aaron.
AARON MATÉ: This is not the first time that the U.S. has moved a Navy force into that peninsula, but the first time it’s done so under President Trump. Talk about what’s going on.
CHRISTINE HONG: Well, I mean, you raise a very interesting point. You know, the question is to what degree is Trump’s hawkish, very aggressive, bellicose stance toward North Korea a continuation of the policies of his predecessors? And, in fact, it was Trump the candidate who struck a very different note. If you recall roughly a year ago Trump stated, when he was on the campaign trail, that he would be willing — and this is a very maverick statement — to actually sit down with Kim Jong-un and speak with him. And it was that that represented the possibility of something different.
What’s happening right now, unfortunately, is business as usual. And, in point of fact, under President Barack Obama, the policy that was carried out, the U.S. policy that was carried out with regard to Asia and the Pacific, was what he called his “pivot policy.” Under that pivot policy, that was later called the rebalancing policy, the balance of U.S. naval forces went from the Atlantic to the Pacific, so that 60% are concentrated now in the Pacific.
Whereas a lot of people are looking at Trump right now and rightly recognizing that his very aggressive language is bringing us to the brink of something very dangerous, we were on the brink during the past presidency, as well.
AARON MATÉ: When North Korea launches a ballistic test, what should the U.S. do?
CHRISTINE HONG: You know, unfortunately right now, we’re in this very lamentable situation in which North Korea’s launching of these tests is a kind of way of communicating with the United States. Much as Trump’s air strike was also meant, as his administration openly admitted, to be a form of communication with North Korea, as well. And so, we have this sort of very dangerous mode of communication where these kinds of bombs, bombs are substituting for actual dialogue.
So, I would say that right now Trump is sort of walking a very tried and true regime change-oriented path that many of his predecessors have also walked along. But if there’s any way for Trump the maverick who is willing to sit down with Kim Jong-un, if there’s any possibility of that, I think that that is one of the only ways forward.
AARON MATÉ: There have been talks between the U.S. and North Korea before. There was the agreement in the ’90s between Clinton and the North Korean regime to get North Korea to freeze its plutonium production. These agreements worked for a bit, but then they collapsed. Can you talk about the history of recent U.S.-North Korean engagement and how we got to where we are today?
CHRISTINE HONG: You know, I think that we have to actually look at the long history, and then look at the more recent history. From its very inception as a state, North Korea has been subjected to a policy that we can just broadly call regime change on the part of the United States. You can understand the Korean War as an extensive campaign, an asymmetrical war, that was aimed at regime change. And you can understand more recent policy in that same light.
But you’re very right. At the end of the Clinton administration there was the possibility of engagement. And when George W. Bush came into office he adopted what was known as the ABC policy, the All But Clinton policy. And as I’m sure your viewers recall, he nominated North Korea as part of the infamous ‘Axis of Evil’. And also, the other thing that happened during his administration is that, as part of the U.S. nuclear posture review, it listed North Korea among several other states as a likely and possible target of a pre-emptive U.S. nuclear strike.
From mid-century onward, the United States has had a very aggressive nuclear policy toward North Korea. It contemplated using nuclear weapons against North Korea and China at mid-century. And, in fact, some of the U.S. strategic planners envisioned a kind of Cobalt Zone where no life could live for hundreds of years.
Against the conditions of the Armistice Agreement, which was concluded in July of 1953, the U.S. stationed — and this was illegal — nuclear weapons on the southern part of the Korean Peninsula until the end of the Cold War. Over a dozen times the United States has threatened North Korea with nuclear annihilation. But if you look at this long history you can understand that, from North Korea’s perspective, it’s eminently rational to actually develop a nuclear weapons program as a self-defense measure.
And I also do want to say that one thing that very few people in the United States have is a memory of ruin, in terms of its hot wars during the Cold War. Throughout the Cold War the United States waged really destructive hot wars in the Third World, most infamously on the Korean Peninsula and in Vietnam. And, you know, an estimated 4 million people — Koreans — were killed during that asymmetrical war in which the United States unleashed bombs with absolutely no regard for human life. 70% of those who were killed were civilians. Chinese statistics have North Korean casualties at one-third of the total population.
And so, when you’re talking about North Korea’s memory, in terms of people who are alive today, there’s not a family that was untouched by the ruination of the Korean War.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. So, you’re saying that this very devastating and long history fuels some of the antagonism that North Korea projects towards the U.S. today. Going back to the devastating Korean War.
But what to do now? I mean, people look at the Korean regime and say, you know, this is the worst government in the world. How do we deal with them? What’s your response to that?
CHRISTINE HONG: I just say that the primary ways that we know North Korea are through lenses of war. And so, you know, if there are other ways of engaging with North Korea, and this is the other thing, too, throughout the presidency of Barack Obama there was absolutely no engagement with North Korea. And I think that that is one of those options that, you know, supposedly, the Trump administration has stated that all options are on the table, and that’s meant very ominously. You know, I mean, we’re made to understand that a nuclear first strike is possible. But I hope that one of those options is also engagement.
AARON MATÉ: And what would engagement look like?
CHRISTINE HONG: Engagement would look, it would look like a much more humane policy toward North Korea. Right now, the United States, against the wishes of the South Korean people, is deploying what they call a missile defense system, the THAAD battery, to South Korea. And it accelerated that under Donald Trump. The people in the communities in which these systems will be located have actually really protested against this.
And that was also part of the protests against the former South Korean president Park Geun-hye, that you saw those massive, millions of people who went to the streets in South Korea, that was one of the issues that was animating those protests.
Another way in which engagement would appear would be — it would be actually North Korea has repeatedly stated that it’s willing to cap its nuclear program — not do away with, but cap its nuclear program — if the United States stops performing war exercises with South Korea. And these are the largest war exercises in the world.
AARON MATÉ: Can there be direct talks now between the Trump administration and North Korea?
CHRISTINE HONG: You know, I think the interesting thing about Trump is if his predecessor, Barack Obama, had a policy of strategic patience toward North Korea, Trump’s has been strategic unpredictability, and strategic opaqueness, with the threat of a nuclear first strike thrown in. I’m not sure what’s possible at this present juncture because things do seem so dire.
But it was Trump the candidate who did speak in very unorthodox fashion about being willing to actually sit down with Kim Jong-un. And if that’s at all possible now, I’d say that that’s one of the only pathways forward.
The other thing that’s happening is, although the Trump administration is speaking to its conservative counterpart in South Korea, as you well know, the South Korean president was ousted. And all signs suggest that the next administration in South Korea is going to be progressive. And so, that’s a wind of change that’s happening. And in actually, in planning its North Korea policy, the Trump administration can’t but deal with South Korea. And so, we do have change that’s happening there and that actually suggests another sort of possibility of engagement.
AARON MATÉ: Professor Christine Hong of UC Santa Cruz, thanks so much for joining us.
CHRISTINE HONG: Thank you very much.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.