North Korea: The Undaunted State Tests the Limits of Empire

North Korea is an exceptional state, but unlike an imperial power it lacks a doctrine of exceptionalism. It is exceptional in that it is willing to suffer any cost to protect its independence, and it relies on no one to assure its sovereignty. One fact stands out as unambiguous: today, North Korea stands alone as being the most serious and consistent opponent of US empire. It therefore seemed a little strange that, suddenly, it was backing away from central tenets of its self-defense—but then that was a story being sold by South Koreans, and the western press. Suspicions that North Korea was not just suddenly about to give everything up, in return for the promise of Starbucks, have been validated. It is also worth noting that, as much as North Koreans have prepared for war, they also understand the art of diplomacy, as they have shown on numerous occasions with the most recent diplomatic effort taking off during this year’s winter Olympics in South Korea. In contrast, the Americans seem to know little and respect less about actual diplomacy. Today the US working definition of “diplomacy” expands it to a default category: anything that is not massively explosive “shock and awe” warfare must be diplomacy. Thus, absurdly, the US government speaks of sanctions designed to “strangle” the North Korean economy and “kick it in the gut” (as the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has repeatedly stated), sanctions that do immense damage to the welfare of ordinary North Koreans, an act of massive collective punishment—it’s all “diplomacy”. If no US troops pull triggers or push buttons, then that’s all that is needed for diplomacy to exist. That is quite wrong.

Such a mistake comes at a cost: now the US side has managed to talk itself out of a rare chance for peace.

While silence from North Korea prevailed for weeks since the first announcement of the chance for a meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, the Americans instead could not seem to shut up even for a moment, even when it was absolutely necessary to really shut up. As if to confirm stereotypes of Americans that many of us outside the US share, any moment of silence had to be squeezed out by incessant American chatter. What emerged was an American soliloquy on the world stage, and it was embarrassing and cringe-worthy at the best of times. So American leaders dreamt aloud about the prospects of winning a Nobel prize (when the initiative was purely Korean—and was even announced by the South Korean foreign minister on the lawn of the White House, without any US official next to him). Then the Americans praised themselves for having been so tough on North Korea, because such statements could never humiliate anyone—not anyone whose humanity was not even recognized. On top of that, US leaders bellowed they would offer no concessions, even as North Korea took several concrete steps to advance peace. The only reason Trump would meet with Kim is that North Korea had developed advanced nuclear weapons, and the US knew that—Trump instantly agreeing to a summit was the highest confirmation that what North Korea had said about its weapons was in fact true all along, and the US was in direct peril. The North Koreans released US prisoners, and the US side called them “hostages”—because “prisoners” only exist in “civilized” nations like the US, whereas in the dark holes of the world, where always innocent Americans never commit any crimes, any act of detention is “hostage-taking”. North Korea was referred to for decades as a terrorist state and a rogue regime—when it had invaded and occupied no country (not even South Korea can say that, which sent troops to Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan). Still not knowing when it was time to shut the hell up, American officials then decided to take matters over the top: they demanded immediate and irreversible denuclearization (the first part is unrealistic, and the second is absolutely impossible). Or else. Then the US president rushed to claim that North Korea had in fact accepted denuclearization, and thus tacitly obeyed the “or else” part as well. The US decided to paint a picture for North Koreans of what their future would look like if they did not agree to all US demands (a stance that rendered negotiations pointless): the only future they could dream of was becoming another Libya. Perhaps deliberately, but John Bolton (national security adviser) and vice-president Mike Pence completely sabotaged any remaining chance for dialogue—Trump trying to claw back some of the remarks was half-hearted and made matters worse, as he too threatened a Libyan outcome.

What does the American government know about diplomacy, when they don’t even know when it’s time to shut up? These are people accustomed to dancing in the end zones of other countries. Their “respect” for international agreements, and thus international law, is manifested in how they tear up those agreements and walk away, or sign the agreements but never send them to Congress for ratification, or ignore the verdicts of the International Court of Justice. People who want peace show some seriousness of purpose, and the US shows no serious interest in peace. At some point very dangerous, very foolish assumptions infected official thinking in Washington:

  • that peace is for the weak;
  • that talking legitimates an opponent and raises his status (from animal to human); and,
  • that negotiations mean that one party is totally surrendering.

North Korea is playing no part in validating those assumptions. Not only have North Korea’s responses proven that such assumptions exist, they have also proven they must be defeated, and then they proceeded to show us how to defeat them. The courage of North Koreans is something that cannot fail to impress anyone.

Showing little interest in peace is one problem, but thinking that one can always escape the consequences of aggression is another, bigger problem. In the last few years, slowly, unconsciously, the old American paradigm of invincibility and untouchability has crept back in. It’s an unforgivable breach, one that events such as 9/11 should have permanently rendered impermissible. But many Americans still tend to be more dreamers than thinkers and, to indulge more stereotypes, they always dream of themselves as the hero: touchdown, cheers, girl under the arm, face on the front page of the newspaper, contracts signed, millions in the bank, steaks and cocktails by the pool. The paradigm of invincible, untouchable America is one that contains a totally foolish ideal of the no-consequence, cost-free lifestyle. It shapes their attitudes towards the environment as much as their personal health, and it damages both very severely.

One of the fatal errors made by the American side is to assume that their counterparts in North Korea and China were somehow impressed by all this bravado, that they were intimidated and could be easily bullied. Instead, one can imagine that in Beijing they must still be laughing at the memory of the real estate developer thinking he could buy them with a piece of chocolate cake and an awkward little performance by granddaughter Arabella pretending to “sing” in Mandarin—and this is what was presented to the descendants of a civilization that has existed for thousands of years before the “USA” was even a name.

Avoid embarrassing yourself, tone things down, and do not count your chickens before they hatch: these are some of the most basic lessons of diplomacy and, one would think, of deal-making. There can be no deal, let alone an artful one, if these lessons continue to be ignored. But that’s not the point: what happens now is that the door to a devastating war, one that could scorch most of the US itself, has now been unlocked yet again.

Two distinct processes that have recently unfolded should have signalled to the US that their grasp of reality was quite tenuous. One was the Chinese response to US demands on the trade front, and China’s stated willingness—and readiness—to fight a trade war to the very end, to quote a Chinese official. The other was North Korea, painted as suddenly pliant by parties interested in selling a summit, erupting back into public conversation by directly calling their South Korean counterparts “ignorant and incompetent,” and by calling vice-president Mike Pence “stupid,” “ignorant,” and a “political dummy” (all of which was abundantly warranted). Regarding China, the US basically caved in and retreated from the threatened trade war. On South Korea, Trump’s relentless boasting, before even sitting down to a meeting, now shivers after being drenched by a cascade of frigid water.

These are some of the key mistakes made by the US in dealing with North Korea on the peace summit, in no specific order of importance:

  • Assuming that the US, unilaterally, would decide on an acceptable outcome: this stance renders the very act of negotiating irrelevant. It told North Korea: “You’re not coming here to talk with us, you’re coming here to surrender to us”. In the US, reactions from politicians were confused, apprehensive, with some making the usual unrealistic unilateral demands that would have prevented talks in the first place—forgetting that North Korea was listening. The repeated messaging about “maximum pressure” having “worked” would only solidify any North Korean apprehensions. Throwing cold water on Trump’s incessant triumphalist narrative at home, a classic case of counting one’s chickens before the eggs hatch, Kim Jong-un warned Trump to stop portraying the North’s openness to peace as a declaration of surrender. Much of what Trump had been boasting made it seem that North Korea was simply caving in—which would hardly encourage North Korean participation in dialogue, if dialogue was reduced to discussing terms of surrender. If Trump thought he had a green light to impose a 21st-century equivalent of the Versailles treaty on North Korea, he had another thing coming. China meanwhile continued to play a significant role in the negotiations, almost behind the scenes, with two China-North Korea summits happening, the second happening soon after the first and not publicly announced beforehand. This second meeting would become significant for what was suspected about its significance.
  • Issuing an ultimatum, to be accepted under duress: to threaten a sovereign government’s very existence, while already imposing catastrophic international sanctions, is already enough to erode the legitimacy of any negotiations. It would make it impossible for Kim Jong-un to sell any deal made under such conditions to the powerful military establishment and to the party hierarchy. It would also signal an unacceptable weakness in the eyes of the population, eroding support for the government. Trump seemed to be making the seriously mistaken assumption that North Korea was willing to give up anything, everything, just for sanctions to be lifted. Instead, what North Korea proved is that it was seriously interested in peace, took concrete steps, and now the commitment by all countries to maintain sanctions will have been eroded. The central fact remains: the US did not initiate talks about the summit, and it withdrew—that leaves North Korea untarnished, and significantly elevated.
  • Increasing duress while speaking about peace: News of impending direct talks did not stop the US from imposing further sanctions on North Korea, based on allegations of events that did not even impact the US. Mike Pence meanwhile renewed the US hard-line against North Korea, in a manner that flew in the face of Trump’s cheerful stance—Pence essentially repeated his earlier hardline statements that threw cold water on peace talks. Pence was possibly still nursing the considerable wounds to his ego, which he incurred at the Olympics.
  • Ruling out key topics for discussion in advance: Trump’s facile assertion, following Bolton, that the question of the US troop presence on the border with North Korea was “off the table” was a serious mistake. Trump made this remark on May 4 to reporters on the tarmac, during a trip to Dallas. Then why would North Korea want to negotiate? What is the point of a peace treaty, and a non-aggression pact, if a foreign superpower stations tens of thousands of troops on your border? How would Kim Jong-un sell that to the people of North Korea, and to its powerful military hierarchy? What is also vital to note is that objections to the presence of US troops in South Korea, is a dominant demand in South Korea itself, where the prospect of peace immediately opened the doors to new demands that US troops exit the country. Here Trump’s argument seems to be with South Korea, at least as much as North Korea. Moreover, a peace treaty would abolish the need for the THAAD missile “defense” system, which Russia and China always felt was ultimately aimed at them. “Maintaining the power balance in East Asia”—a broad, generic and euphemistic way for US officials to insist on asserting dominance—became the dominant, underlying concern which also demonstrated how a peace treaty with North Korea would run counter to US geostrategic interests.
  • Not understanding what North Korea means by “denuclearization”: widely unexamined and frequently misunderstood, Trump never seemed to consider that there could be a distinctly North Korean conceptualization of “denuclearization”. Trump, hearing the word alone, jumped to certain untenable conclusions, which could be a recipe for disaster; Trump also wrongly assumed that North Korea had agreed, in advance, to denuclearization—it has not. In fact, North Korea threatened to not show up for the summit if it was being pushed into “unilateral nuclear abandonment”; North Korea condemned the US­–South Korean military exercises then taking place; and, the North immediately called off talks with the South. Trump had in fact rendered the outcome of a summit unworkable, by essentially turning it into an act of coercion: either agree with the US, or face annihilation. In a rare item, from March, we were given some insight into what North Korea is talking about when it speaks of “denuclearization”. In May, we were given a little additional insight into what North Korea means by “denuclearization”. What events in May showed was that previous second-hand filterings of what North Korea allegedly promised, as spoken by South Korean counterparts, were not to be taken at face value—we were told that North Korea would accept continued US military exercises with South Korea before the summit, and then the exact opposite turned out to be true.
  • The insult of one negotiating party’s premature optimism: Trump seemed to suffer from dangerously premature optimism, mixed with renewed threats of war if talks failed. Trump assumed too much of North Korea which had itself promised nothing in public, and not officially. North Korea, for its part, made none of the promises Trump claimed they had, and continued its public silence for most of the time since the summit was first announced.
  • Doing all the talking while the other party remains silent: North Korea continued to remain publicly silent on the meeting from March, practically into May. Any time the western press reported “North Korean reactions,” they were actually second-hand statements coming out of South Korea and China. There was no questioning about who the actual authors of such statements could have been, and few pursued the question of why the North Korean government was steadfastly preserving its silence.
  • White House factionalism and inconsistent messaging: statements by John Bolton and Mike Pence did considerable damage to the prospects for a summit, and often ran counter to Trump’s messaging. Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, chilled the prospects for peace by invoking—with a straight face—“the Libya model” for handling North Korean denuclearization. Numerous analysts were, fortunately, quick to notice Bolton’s paradigm, and lambasted him for it. Weeks later, Trump seemed to at first contradict Bolton (though there was a general misunderstanding of what specifically Bolton meant by the Libyan model), but then Trump actually came out with worse, threatening precisely the kind of homicidal regime change that Libya suffered, should North Korea fail to accept a deal—which is an unacceptable way of negotiating. John Bolton would again threaten to mess up negotiations, when in an interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News, on May 8—the day Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal—he indicated that North Korea would not be allowed to engage in any activities to provide itself with nuclear energy. Denuclearization meant no nuclear anything, apparently. Though few noticed, it was hardly a suggestion that North Korea ever volunteered, or would agree with. As for making denuclearization irreversible, this would mean somehow losing knowledge, or losing those that had knowledge. Was North Korea supposed to execute thousands of scientists?
  • Relying on China, yet threatening China: even an amateur could have predicted that by foolishly pursuing China over trade issues, at the very same time as the US was relying on Chinese support to pressure North Korea, that instead China may have given North Korea incentives for hardening their stance. By the end of May Trump was alleging much the same about this now famous, tightly guarded second meeting between the leaders of China and North Korea. In a memorable meeting with South Korean president Moon and the press in the Oval Office, Trump stated:

“I will say I’m a little disappointed, because when Kim Jong-un had the meeting with President Xi, in China, the second meeting—the first meeting we knew about—the second meeting—I think there was a little change in attitude from Kim Jong-un. So I don’t like that. I don’t like that. I don’t like it from the standpoint of China. Now, I hope that’s not true, because we have—I have a great relationship with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine. He likes me. I like him. We have—I mean, that was two of the great days of my life being in China. It was—I don’t think anybody has ever been treated better in China—ever in their history. And I just think it was—many of you were there—it was an incredible thing to witness and see. And we built a very good relationship. We speak a lot. But there was a difference when Kim Jong-un left China the second time. And I think they were dedicating an aircraft carrier that the United States paid for. Okay? Because we paid for it”.

None of this means that there will never be direct talks between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. Already North Korea has signalled that it remains open to such talks. The experience should recommend some sobriety to the American side. At the very least, the next time the US gets closer to such a summit Trump should wrap several rolls of duct tape around the mouths of John Bolton, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and Heather Nauert.

4 thoughts on “North Korea: The Undaunted State Tests the Limits of Empire

  1. Most of the public posturing is for “public relations” purposes. there are rational reasons to negotiate a peace treaty that will transition into Korean reunification, and transition foreign troops and nuclear weapons out in lock-step, with cooperation and coordination by interested-parties, China and Russia. This can be good for all parties, and the US can save face, as it turns it’s face away from “unipolar” global hegemony aspirations. The problem is not-so-much the Americans, but the actual rulers of the empire that controls the American military and financial systems. They shall remain nameless, because they can afford to…

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