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[Robert J. Fouser] Focusing on what works with North Korea

Feb. 26, 2019 - 17:06 By Kim Kyung-ho
The race for the Democratic nomination for US president in 2020 grows by the week, and more potential candidates are waiting in the wings. Each week also brings a new round of grand proposals: universal health care, free public college, the Green New Deal, universal child care, infrastructure, and reparations for slavery.

The energetic left and its friends in the media are enjoying the proposals in the hope of “reshaping” American society. Candidates promise much, but offer few specifics other than repealing the 2017 Trump tax cuts and increasing taxes on the 1 percent and wealthy corporations. Seasoned politicians know, however, that any one of those proposals would cost far more than the proposed taxes would bring in. Total public debt in 2018 was 106 percent of GDP, a historically high percentage in peacetime.

President Trump and the conservative establishment have jumped to label the proposals “socialist” and argued that they risk turning the US into another Venezuela. Stirring up a red scare to pre-empt the energetic left is one of the oldest tools in the US political playbook.

In the meantime, the broad middle, after having slapped Trump down by putting Democrats in charge of the House of Representatives, has greeted the candidates and their proposals with skepticism. They may like the spirit of the proposals, but fear the cost and have little faith that politicians will deliver on their promises. They are looking for what works, not for flashy posts on social media.

As this paper hits the streets, President Trump and Kim Jong-un will be opening their second summit, this time in Hanoi. Like US politics, views of North Korea are hardened by rigid ideological stances. Traditionally, conservatives have focused on the need to maintain a strong defense against the North Korean threat, while liberals have argued for engagement through negotiations.

This remains the case in South Korea, but Trump has shifted things in the US. Trump has given new life to the latent isolationism that has existed on the right and the left of the political spectrum. In the guise of “America First” language, this isolationism rejects the activist focus on regime change advocated by neocons during the Bush administration after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Because it views the projection of US power overseas as an expensive drain on US taxpayers, its fundamental goal is to create the conditions for reduced US involvement.

Trump has also shifted things on the left. The far left remains critical of US foreign policy and argues that the US should focus on supporting human rights and environmental justice around the world. Drawing on isolationist urges, it rejects the use of military force as a tool for foreign policy.

Mainstream, center-left Democrats, by contrast, have remain committed to active US involvement in world affairs. They are more reticent to support intervention for regime change, but they also reject isolationism. This group has become increasingly critical of President Trump’s approach to North Korea because, like the neocons, they fear that he wants to use negotiations with North Korea to create a positive political narrative leading up to the 2020 election.

As things stand now, Trump and his isolationist friends want good news out of the summit. Their keyword is “peace.” The neocons and mainstream Democrats remain focused on denuclearization.

The problem for both groups is that peace and denuclearization go hand in hand. Making nice with North Korea for short-term political gain without denuclearization leaves an unstable situation intact for future leaders to deal with. By contrast, pushing for denuclearization without reassuring North Korea that it will not be subject to calls for regime change creates the conditions for war.

To build on any progress that comes out of today’s summit, leaders need to focus on what works, not on ideological stances. The end goals must be peace and denuclearization. To get there, North Korea will need to save face and Kim Jong-un will need to create his own positive political narrative. A diplomatic structure in which both Korean states and neighboring powers recognize each other as legitimate states will help allay North Korean fears of a US push for regime change. In return, South Korea and the US must get denuclearization.

In the end, the success of the summit should be judged by the substantive steps toward peace and denuclearization that it produces. It should also lay the groundwork for future summits because, as Nelson Mandela aptly put it, “the best weapon is to sit down and talk.”

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.