Why the Panic over Korea Peace Talks? (2/2)

As President Trump and Kim Jong-Un agree to historic talks, centrist voices are expressing alarm based on a self-serving and false reading of history, says Timothy Shorrock

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Story Transcript

AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. President Trump and Kim Jong-un have announced historic talks that could lead to denuclearizing North Korea but rather than embrace the move, some of President Trump’s centrist critics are voicing alarm. Here, for example, is Rachel Maddow of MSNBC.

RACHEL MADDOW: Why has that never happened in all the decades North Korea has existed as a nation? Why hasn’t any other president ever done, should I take that to mean that this might be a particularly risky or even an unwise move? I think that’s how most presidents would approach the idea of a personal presidential meeting with the North Korean dictator. I think a lot of people probably suspect tonight that those are not the kinds of questions that this president asked himself before agreeing to this meeting. But this is the president we have and he said yes to North Korea.

AARON MATÉ: Earlier today, on the same network, Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe spoke to MSNBC chief foreign correspondent Andrea Mitchell.

JOE SCARBOROUGH: Andrea, let’s talk really briefly for people who may not be aware of it, but talk about how the North Koreans have made fools of every American president since Bill Clinton.

ANDREA MITCHELL: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, even though he then called them the evil empire and Barack Obama, all three fooled. A former president, Jimmy Carter, going in 1994 and getting fooled and misled by Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il. I was there during negotiations with, previously, the highest ranking American to ever meet with a North Korean leader was Madeleine Albright. In October of 2000, we went and they were going to normalize relations. And then George W. Bush hit the pause button on that when he was elected in March of 2001. They’ve all been…

JOE SCARBOROUGH: Even that… Even that…

ANDREA MITCHELL: They’ve cheated in every instance.

JOE SCARBOROUGH: And even the…

AARON MATÉ: In part one of this conversation, we were joined by Christine Ahn of Women Cross DMZ, but she had to leave us. We are still joined by Tim Shorrock, independent journalist who covers US-Korea relations for The Nation and the Korea Center for Investigative Reporting. Welcome Tim. If you could address that brief history that Andrea Mitchell just outlined where she talks about a history of North Korea fooling the US. Is that accurate?

TIM SHORROCK: No, it’s not accurate at all. The media, including NBC, is pumping lies out one after the other about the US and North Korea, this history of diplomacy that’s happened. You notice the last thing she said, she talked about the Clinton agreement and then she said Bush kind of put the kibosh on that or, didn’t get her exact words. Yeah, there was an agreement under which North Korea froze its nuclear processing for 12 years.

Then at the end of the ’90s, under the Clinton administration, they came very close to that trip she was talking about, when she went to Pyongyang with Madeleine Albright. Clinton came extremely close to an agreement. They had an agreement in principle for North Korea to end all its missile tests and to normalize relations with the United States. In other words, North Korea, at that time, was willing to trade their weapon program and their missile program for a better relationship with the United States.

And then when Bush came to power, he rejected the idea of negotiating with Kim Jong-Il, who was then the leader of North Korea, and in 2002, they torpedoed the agreement between the US and North Korea under which the program was frozen. They torpedoed it by telling North Korea, saying that, “You have started a uranium program,” which the North Koreans denied but they said they had a right to one. The US did refuse to negotiate about it and just said, “Okay, the agreement’s over because you’re on a uranium track.” And that was the end of that. Within a couple years, North Korea, after that, when the Bush administration pulled the rug out from under the agreement, North Korea kicked out the IAEA inspectors that were in there and proceeded to build its nuclear capability. By 2006, they had exploded their first atomic bomb.

So, every day you hear in the media, on NBC and CNN, they’ll say, “Oh, then North Korea broke its agreements the next day,” and so on so forth. There’s no careful look at the role that the US played. I mean, the Republicans torpedoed the agreement. They criticized, they criticized the agreement when it was passed. They accused Clinton of Neville Chamberlain-type of action with North Korea and caving into North Korean demands and so forth. And the North Koreans, after a while, even while the agreement was in place, they felt the US was not meeting its terms. The US has a pretty bad history here, too, and the media just completely rejects this idea of even looking at the history.

AARON MATÉ: Right.

TIM SHORROCK: They just pump out the mistruths one after the other.

AARON MATÉ: Right. Two points there. Under Clinton, the US was supposed to help build reactors, right, but that never fully materialized?

TIM SHORROCK: Right.

AARON MATÉ: Then also, you mentioned North Korea testing a bomb in 2006. What’s interesting about that, I think is that after Bush had called off talks and basically abandoned diplomacy, it was North Korea with that show of force, testing a bomb, that prompted Bush to go back to the negotiating table, embrace talks, and approve these six party talks that actually got somewhere, at least for a bit.

TIM SHORROCK: Exactly. It’s important to note here that, three weeks after that first bomb was exploded, Bush approved Condoleezza Rice to open negotiations with North Korea three weeks after their first bomb was exploded. So,they were in a mood for negotiating after that. Unfortunately, when you look at the history of the six party talks and actually, the history of all these negotiations, what’s very important is when you have a progressive president in South Korea, things move forward. When you have a right wing, conservative president in South Korea, things move backward.

In 2008, after 10 years of progressive presidents who, Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, they had this policy, the Sunshine Policy towards North Korea, which was based on engagement and diplomacy and sports diplomacy and all that, exchanges across the border to build trust. That went out the window in 2008 when you had a conservative leader elected in South Korea. He immediately, like the Republicans did before, rejected the agreement that was made in 1994 and began, the negotiations were already underway, and then this new South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, began to demand that the additional conditions be put on North Korea for inspections and that kind of thing. North Korea rejected that. When Obama came in, he endorsed the hard line from Lee Myung-bak and the hard line continued through the next president, Park Geun-hye.

And so, when you have these conservative presidents, it makes the situation worse, which is why the role of Moon Jae-in has been so important here.

AARON MATÉ: But Tim, speaking of Obama, drawing on your formula there about what happens under progressive or conservative presidents in South Korea, is it fair to say that under a liberal president like Obama, things also pretty much go nowhere? Because Obama did not put much diplomatic force behind reaching a settlement with North Korea. His doctrine was one of strategic patience, which critics say was basically a euphemism for doing nothing. And if that’s true, I wonder does that maybe explain some of the liberal angst we’re seeing right now over Trump’s decision to engage in a direct meeting with Kim Jong-un?

TIM SHORROCK: I think that’s part of it. I mean, these people that love Obama never took a careful look at what he did with Korea. Obama said when he was running that he would be willing to meet the leader of North Korea but he focused all his attention on Iran. When it came to North Korea, as I said, he sided with the South Korean conservatives, and also conservatives regained power in Japan, as well. Also, you have to remember that under Obama, when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, they began this process of building up US forces in the Pacific. They call it the Asia pivot, Pacific pivot. So, this was kind of aimed at China also, and circling China and building up US military forces in Asia. So, peace with North Korea or the negotiations with North Korea kind of went against that whole policy of the US military buildup in Asia which continued through the Obama administration.

Obama never once got involved in direct negotiations with North Korea, even though delegates came, people came from the United States, former officials that meet with North Korea now and then in these track two negotiations that have been going on throughout this time. They came back in 2010, 2011 with North Korean offers to have a peace agreement and get rid of all their plutonium and send it to a third country, made offers like that to Obama that he never took them up on. So, I guess, they don’t want to take any criticism of Obama’s foreign policy.

AARON MATÉ: That’s a critical point there, I think, about Obama and US forces in South Korea and the role of China in that because if you’re committed to confronting China, it’s a lot easier to justify keeping 30,000 or so US troops in South Korea, if you’re able to claim that you have to counter this North Korean enemy that stands in the middle of South Korea and China.

Let me finally ask you, Tim, there’s some speculation among liberal critics that all this was done by Trump to deflect away from the scandal engulfing him around this former mistress of his, this woman with whom he had an affair, Stormy Daniels. But also, the other thing that puzzles me about the discourse is that there seemed, it’s taken to be odd that North Korea wants to be treated as equals with the US. Let me read to you from Nick Kristof, the liberal columnist for the New York Times. He writes today, “What North Korean leaders have craved for many years is international respect and credibility. They want to be treated as equals by the Americans, so a scene of Trump and Kim standing side by side would constitute a triumph for Pyongyang.”

This to me, reflects sort of a broader trend that it’s somehow seen as untoward or strange that North Koreans want to be treated as equals with the US. I’m wondering are we supposed to not see them as equals? Are they lesser than we are?

TIM SHORROCK: Well, that’s how they want you to see them, yes. They’re an evil regime. They should be eliminated, basically. That’s the line. This is, yeah, Nick Kristof and these other liberals wringing their hands about this. A country that wants to protect its sovereignty and stand up with deterrence, a deterrent system like nuclear weapons to protect its own sovereignty is something that seems to be a great affront to these liberals when its North Korea. And I think these are all excuses just to avoid the fact that, if you want to have a settlement of this crisis that so worries people, then you have to have direct negotiations with North Korea. That’s the only way to do it.

This is a conflict between the United States and North Korea. They have made that clear. North Korea has made this very clear. Their weapons are aimed at the US because they feel the US has aimed its weapons at them for 60 years and they want to end this state of hostility. That’s what North Korea is trying to do and that’s what, I think, Moon Jae-in has listened to. And they’ve made some, I think some very major concessions to get here.

AARON MATÉ: Tim, let me ask you quickly on this point about Korean agency. Who knows what’s going on President Trump’s mind. As I said, there’s speculation about whether or not it was motivated by a need to deflect from the Stormy Daniels controversy. Who knows with him?

TIM SHORROCK: Right.

AARON MATÉ: But in terms of what otherwise may have motivated him to make this decision? What do you think that was and did, actually, South Korea’s diplomacy that you have been outlining and Christine Ahn, as well, did in part one of this conversation, did that sort of box him in to force him to make a move?

TIM SHORROCK: In a way, it really did. There was a point last summer where there was a report on NBC News that greatly concerned the South Korean government and greatly concerned Moon Jae-in, which was the US had plans to launch a unilateral attack from the air by B1B bombers flying in international airspace that could destroy nuclear sites and missile sites in a way that wouldn’t require the South Koreans to be involved. When Moon Jae-in heard about that, he immediately had his national security advisor call McMaster and call the White House and say, “Don’t you dare do an attack on North Korea without talking to us and without our involvement.”

I think that was a kind of a critical turning point because since the beginning, since he took the presidency, Moon Jae-in has insisted that South Korea must be in the driver’s seat of the Korea peace process. He has become, he is in the driver’s seat. He is the engine behind this. I think what happened was it was totally coincidence that it sort of intersected with all these salacious stories about Trump’s affair with this porn star. The fact is the Olympics happened. There was talks during the Olympics and then Moon Jae-in’s government sent these two national security advisors, including the head of intelligence to North Korea. They had long talks with Kim Jong-un, unprecedented talks there. Then they came back and Moon Jae-in wanted these people to come to tell the United States what had happened and fill them in on what North Korea had offered. That was the point of their mission to the White House yesterday. When, I guess, when Trump was briefed about it, he urged the South Koreans to make the announcement. And that’s what happened.

I think it was kind of symbolic that the announcement was made solely by the South Koreans. I was glad to see that there wasn’t Trump standing next to them or McMaster. I think probably McMaster, who has been pushing for a war, his national security advisor, probably didn’t even want to be part of this process. I think it’s really, it just happened to coincide with these stories about his scandals. But I think, for Trump, a wag the dog scenario would be much more likely with a war. War is what brings a country together, right and lets you forget domestic issues and domestic crises. But embarking on a peace process with North Korea doesn’t really make you popular here. I don’t really buy this. I just think it’s a silly way for people to look at this and discount the South Korean role.

AARON MATÉ: It’s amazing, our capacity here in the West to deny other parts of the world their agency. We’ll leave there. Tim Shorrock, independent journalist covers US-Korea relations for The Nation and the Korea Center for Investigative Reporting. Tim, thank you.

TIM SHORROCK: Thanks so much, Aaron.

AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.