President Donald Trump’s talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have the potential to usher in an era of nonviolent coexistence. However, the political establishment, corporate media, and foreign policy think tanks are deeply upset that Trump offered to end United States military exercises early in the diplomatic talks for de-nuclearization by North Korea.
The backlash is the product of a commitment to U.S. empire. If the U.S. does not have military forces occupying the Korean peninsula, or Japan, it will make it harder to challenge China’s dominance throughout Asia and the Pacific.
Those upset are also unwilling to reckon with the aggressive posture the U.S. has maintained for decades since the Korean War in the 1950s, which has yet to formally end. Abandoning a war footing is seen as a show of weakness rather than a good faith act to create conditions, where North Korea will permit inspectors to verify it is getting rid of its nuclear weapons.
In an effort to promote “mutual confidence building,” Trump and Jong Un apparently agreed to four points: (1) the establishment of new relations to work toward “peace and prosperity”; (2) the joining of efforts to “build a lasting and stable peace regime”; (3) the reaffirming of the Panmunjom Declaration, which means North Korea will “work toward complete de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”; and (4) the recovery of prisoners of war or soldiers who went missing in action during the Korean conflict.
The Panmunjom Declaration is the name of the agreement between North Korea and South Korea that came out of a summit between Jong Un and South Korea President Moon Jae In in May. It is supposed to end a six decades-old war, and one of the first acts was to remove loud speakers that were used to blast propaganda from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
William Cohen, a former U.S. defense secretary and advisory board member of the Partnership for a Secure America, appeared on multiple news programs after the Trump-Kim summit. He was displeased that Trump complained about how the Pentagon’s war games in and around the Korean peninsula are expensive.
“You know what’s more costly than training and exercising? That’s going into a war unprepared and ill-prepared. If you go back during the Korean conflict, you see what happened when we put men into that conflict. They were poorly equipped, poorly trained, and we suffered massive casualties,” Cohen argued on CNN.
“The notion that these are expensive—yeah, being prepared to fight the wars you cannot deter is very expensive. It’s less expensive than losing people in a war, less expensive than losing a battle in a war.”
“What would the Golden State Warriors do without exercising for a whole season and the coach said, ‘We know we’re good. Let’s go in there and play now like we always could?'” Cohen added. “It’s absurd, the notion that you would not exercise and make yourself as ready as possible to deter anyone from taking action against you.”
The remark is revealing. Individuals like Cohen insist the military exercises are purely “defensive.” But if war is treated as inevitable, that fosters a climate where provocative actions ensure hostility and make peace impossible.
Also, the Warriors always know there will be a season of basketball games. If they do not exercise and practice, that will put their team at a disadvantage. In contrast, North Korea and U.S. do not have to remain in a permanent state of conflict, which is why the idea of a treaty to end the Korean conflict has been floated.
Later, Cohen said, “Look at what is taking place globally. We are disengaging. The President has said he wants our troops out of Korea. He eventually will say we need to get our troops out of Japan. So at that particular point, you can say the Chinese will be very happy with this,” and, “That says you’re on your own. You cannot count on the United States.”
Cohen reveals that he and others, who are opposed to ending the U.S. military presence in Korea, or even Japan, to spur nuclear disarmament, are concerned the U.S. will no longer be able to project American power.
President Barack Obama’s administration was committed to what was called the “Asia pivot.” It was intended to challenge China both militarily and economically.
From Alfred W. McCoy’s “In the Shadows of the American Century,” “Through eight major air and naval bastions in Japan, the construction of a joint naval facility on Jeju Island in South Korea, and access to host-country naval bases in Australia, Singapore, and the Philippines, Washington had, by the end of Obama’s second term, rebuilt its chain of military enclaves along the Asian littoral, positioning its forces to challenge China’s navy in the East China and South China Sea.
“To operate these installations, the Pentagon announced plans to ‘forward base 60 percent of our naval assets in the Pacific by 2020’ along with a similar percentage of air force fighters and bombers, as well as ‘space and cyber capabilities,'” McCoy noted.
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“As Obama himself observed in 2016, ‘If you look at how we’ve operated in the South China Sea, we have been able to mobilize most of Asia to isolate China in ways that have surprised China, frankly, and have very much served our interest in strengthening our alliances.”
Trump’s approach to North Korea undermines this “pivot” because China is likely to become a key partner that helps North Korea grow its economy. It will help shepherd North Korea through diplomatic negotiations so that an outcome desirable for stability in the Asia-Pacific is achieved.
China will likely push for an end to measures aimed at pressuring North Korea, such as sanctions. Easing sanctions could go a long way toward North Korea allowing international inspectors to verify they are following through with de-nuclearization.
David Adelman, a former ambassador to Singapore under Obama, appeared on CNBC and talked about Foal Eagle, the name of one of the drills the U.S. runs annually with South Korea that includes ground, air, naval, as well as special operations forces.
Former officials, politicians, and pundits insist this drill is purely “defensive.” That ignores the fact that North Korea has viewed the exercise as an act of aggression for years because they believe the U.S. and South Korea are rehearsing for war.
The Defense Department describes Foal Eagle as one of the America’s “largest and most complex war-fighting exercises in the Republic of Korea.”
In March 2013, CNN reported, “The U.S. Air Force is breaking out some of its heaviest hardware to send a message to North Korea. A Pentagon spokesman said Monday that B-52 bombers are making flights over South Korea as part of military exercises this month.”
Finally, what no person appearing on the cable news networks to utter their opinion will address is the U.S. government’s history of first-use threats—that is, threatening to use nuclear weapons.
Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower and former nuclear war planner, wrote in his book, “The Doomsday Machine,” “Every president from Truman to Clinton has felt compelled at some point in his time in office—to threaten and/or discuss with the Joint Chiefs of Staff plans and preparations for possible imminent U.S. initiation of tactical or strategic nuclear warfare in the midst of an ongoing non-nuclear conflict or crisis.”
He documented threats from the 20th Century, including President Bill Clinton’s threats of nuclear use against North Korea in 1995 against its nuclear reactor program. This followed a “near-launch of an American conventional attack in 1994.” (Note: Cohen was defense secretary under Clinton so he should know all about this.)
As Ellsberg contends, through each of these threats, the U.S. government used its nuclear weapons. It did not deploy them as was done when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the U.S. government engaged in “atomic diplomacy,” wielding nuclear capabilities to force certain outcomes.
The United States government has a first-use policy. That is not a part of negotiations about de-nuclearization, but certainly, as long as North Korea believes the U.S. could strike preemptively with nuclear weapons, it will view that as a disincentive to get rid of its weapons, which can deter such military action.
Human rights organizations may view the pursuit of peace as a reward for Kim Jong Un. Human Rights Watch certainly believes negotiations should not and must not happen without discussing human rights, such as forced labor in the country.
What leverage does the U.S. have to force Jong Un to do something meaningful about human rights if negotiations are not to move forward without action?
That is not a question posed to diminish the importance of human rights. Rather, making demands of North Korea and refusing to move forward with negotiations, including concessions, if these demands are not immediately satisfied only serves to keep the country and its people isolated. The path to improving human rights is welcoming North Korea into the world and then its people may question and advocate for changes to their conditions, even as they cheer the pursuit of peace by North and South Korean leaders.