In March the administration of US President Donald Trump confirmed that Trump will meet with the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un. The meeting is expected to take place in the first half of June, and the site is said to have been decided upon, though it has not yet been publicly announced.
Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910, as the prize for Japan’s success in its conflict with Russia. Intriguingly, at one point before the war Japan and Russia had discussed the possibility of splitting Korea up between them, using the 38th parallel as a border between their empires. The talks collapsed, the war came, and Japan took it all.
In 1945, as the Japanese Empire fell, Russian (Soviet) troops entered the Korean peninsula from the North. The U.S. became concerned that the Soviets would end up occupying the whole of Korea, and it hastily suggested a division: that the Soviets would occupy and would accept the surrender of all Japanese forces north of (again) the 38th parallel, and that the U.S. would do the honors south of the 38th.
The widespread hope at the time was that this line would be quite provisional and that in due course an election would take place and a unified independent Korea would rule itself. That never happened. Instead, in 1948, a newly created National Assembly in the south half of the peninsula voted in Syngman Rhee as the President of the new Republic of Korea, while a communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea took shape to the north.
The Korean War, 1950-53, involving China (newly Communist itself) as the North’s ally and the United States as the South’s, ended in stalemate and a ceasefire. The new DMZ is more attentive to the topographical particulars than was the initial use of a simple line of longitude, but the peninsula is still cut in half, still roughly at the same place.
In recent years, North Korea has pursued both a ballistic missile program and the development of nuclear weapons, a combination that has worried the South, as well as Japan and in fact much of the world. During the presidential transition period 2016-2017, President Barack Obama apparently told President elect Donald Trump that Korea was “the most urgent problem” that the incoming administration would face.
In January 2018 Rex Tillerson, who was then US Secretary of State, said that there would have to be a “sustained cessation of North Korea’s threatening behavior” as a condition of talks. US/NK relations seem to have warmed up considerably since Tillerson’s departure from the State Department in March.
Left Wing View
On twitter, Christopher Zullo writes that President Trump should not take credit for North Korea’s decision finally to come to the bargaining table, since this is the consequence not of the last year and a half but of a “decade of crippling diplomatic sanctions.” During most of that decade, Barack Obama was President of the United States.
Also on twitter, Brian Krassenstein, an advocate of the impeachment of President Trump, says that the US has succumbed to nuclear blackmail. Addressing himself to POTUS, Kressenstein writes, “You are literally meeting with NK because he [Kim] blackmailed you with threats.”
The periodical Business Insider recently interviewed Julian Ku, a professor at Hofstra, who expresses skepticism that much will come out of the talks. He says, “the first expectation should be nothing will change because in the past nothing has changed” despite earlier outbreaks of optimism.
Ku then discusses the question of who would deserve credit if a breakthrough is made, and if the North opens itself to the world. He says, in essence, that there will be enough credit to be spread around to everyone, including President Trump. But “history tells us,” he reiterates, “that it won’t happen.”
Zack Beauchamp, writing in Vox, says that there isn’t much reason to expect any meeting to result in North Korea giving up its nuclear arsenal. From its point of view, that arsenal has served already as a valuable deterrent and it would be foolishness of abandon it.
Also, Beauchamp raises the issue, which appears in much other center-left commentary, that for an American President to sit down with the head of North Korea as an equal bargaining partner amounts to giving the latter much less legitimacy than he or his precursors have ever had. Trump’s words about the “very honorable” character of Kim have fueled this concern.
Jon Wolfsthal, of the Carnegie Endowment, has said that one big question here is whether President Trump is consciously “playing chicken” with North Korea. Is he pretending to be irrational in order to get a good bargain? Pretending to such irrationality can have a good pay-off if the pretender is, in fact, merely pretending. If he really is irrational, odds of a good outcome fall.
Right Wing View
The right, and especially the alt-right as represented by Breitbart, has a good deal of enthusiasm for the Trump Korea policy.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican Party nominee for President, now running for the U.S. Senate seat in Utah, is nobody’s idea of the alt-right but he, too, in on board with Trump on Korea.
RedState, too, seems to be on board. Its Streiff has contributed a piece on Governor Mitt Romney’s claim that Trump is governing in much the same way that Romney would have had Romney been elected President. That, Streiff says, is simply Romney being a Pander Bear. No one can really believe that Romney would have “bullied Kim Jong Un to the peace table” in the way Trump has.
But the establishment right as represented by the National Review is somewhat skeptical. The folks at the Buckley family magazine have long enough memories to know the world has been this way before. Mona Charon writes, “people are rushing to declare that something momentous has been achieved when we have no reason to believe that, yet.”
She cites earlier analogous instances of high hopes about North Korea from 1991, 1994, and 2005.
Noah Rothman, writing for the neocon journal Commentary, has said that the idea of a Trump/Kim summit “is fraught with more potential for risk than reward.”
Conservatives on twitter (and not just Trump himself!) are very enthusiastic about the upcoming summit, though. One of them, Collin Rugg, brings it up in connection with Iran: “Just like North Korea, Iran will either be met with fire and fury or they will submit and bow down to us.”
Another Trump supporter, Corey Jones, tweets that CNN’s obsession with the Stormy Daniels story has caused them to miss such Big Picture matters as the “end of the Korean war.” CNN, he concludes, airs “everything but news.”
On the morning (Washington DC time) of Wednesday, May 9, President Trump announced that the North Koreans has just released three imprisoned Americans into the custody of the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. This removes one emotionally fraught obstacle from the planned talks.
On this point, the New York Times quotes a former State Department diplomat who perhaps should have the final word. “I would not give Pyongyang too much credit for undoing something it shouldn’t have been doing in the first place.”