Lessons from Hanoi: North Korea and the US
The first Kim-Trump Summit, which took place in Singapore a mere eight months ago, seemed so hopeful—a real breakthrough, a new landmark, new history being made. Of course it was due to Trump’s extreme threats—to totally destroy North Korea with fire and fury—that inflated the value of the first summit in the first place. Trump now likes to assert that had he not been elected president, the US would now be at war with North Korea. One cannot prove such an assertion right, or wrong, since it is impossible to prove “what would have been”. We can, however, assume that if, (a) the prior state of relations had continued untouched (unlike Trump, who actively went about making North Korea into the kind of problem he never mentioned during his electoral campaign), and, (b) without any threats from the US (and certainly without any of Trump’s extreme threats), then it is likely that, like before, open war would not have been on the horizon. Trump put in an extra effort into magnifying “the problem of North Korea,” and then made a special effort to “fix” the problem—only he has not fixed anything really, and now Trump is hostage to whatever North Korea decides to do, a fact that could mean North Korea could do something to negatively affect Trump’s chances of getting re-elected by reminding the US electorate of just how badly Trump failed. Meanwhile, North Korea has in fact achieved all of the extra time which analysts said it needed in order to finally complete development of its nuclear weapons program. No longer being published are articles suggesting that North Korea is not quite ready to strike the US mainland, and to do so over and over. As I wrote in an end-of-year review essay in 2018:
“It would be one of the most striking of ironies if Trump, who campaigned against globalism, were to lose his next electoral campaign thanks to the impact of foreign forces, regardless of whether they are China, North Korea, Iran, or others. On the other hand, it should serve as a reminder that as long as US presidents style themselves as ‘war presidents’ or ‘foreign policy presidents,’ then it should be expected that they will be vulnerable to the influences of developments beyond their borders. And it’s a fitting outcome, given the extent to which the US interferes in other nations…”.
Was the second Kim-Trump summit, in Hanoi, a “failure”? Some analysts seem confused about this question, and are very reticent to call it a failure. How does one define failure? In this case, the meeting failed to produce an agreement. The meeting failed to produce an advance toward any of the stated goals of the last meeting—even the value of simply talking was called into question by Trump walking out and thus ceasing to talk. The result was the same as if the two sides had chosen not to meet, only worse, because they had in fact met and now for the expended effort they had little or nothing to show. Now the two sides do not even know if they will meet again.
Trump did his best to downplay the significance of his walking out, but by blaming events such as the congressional testimony of his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen—which was truly riveting—Trump seemed to suggest that the summit had indeed been a failure. Had it not been a failure, then there would be no need to blame anyone for anything.
Trump reaped the fruit of his labour, and that of his predecessors, in Hanoi. There are lessons to be learned here (which means that thanks to the “mindless inertia of history,” nothing will be learned). The Hanoi summit produced the kinds of results which were foreseen by some, like Patrick Lawrence who argued that, “it is clear what would produce a breakthrough if Trump truly wants one”: first, exempting the extensive North-South Korean development plans from sanctions; second, relaxing the untenable US demand that North Korea surrender everything before any sanctions can be lifted—that the US in effect would concede nothing at all, until it got everything. That is not a negotiating position; rather, it is a demand for unconditional surrender. Such a position also erroneously implies that North Korea has no cards on its side of the table—when clearly it does—and thus the failure of the summit bites the US. But there is even more that can be learned from this failure.
Regime change, sanctions, and violations of international law all came back to haunt Trump. The US president could do not do and say things in one arena, and then turn around in another and pretend that the big smile on his face would make people forget. Such a strategy assumes that all people, like Americans presumably, are incapable of connecting the dots and seeing how one side of a face contradicts the other side. In terms of international law, Trump—and his predecessors—had already established the fact that any agreement reached with the US might not be worth the paper on which it was printed. Trump tore up the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear agreement), even though Iran had violated none of its provisions, and all the other parties to the agreement defended its value. Likewise, Obama attacked Libya after his predecessor had promised benefits in return for Libya disarming itself. There is already too much painful evidence that the US uses disarmament agreements as a maliciously destructive trick—evidence enough for North Korea not to play the role of the sucker, especially when people like John Bolton openly talked about a “Libya model” with reference to North Korea. Expecting the North Koreans to simply ignore all of this is to assume that they are either beyond desperate, or just stupid, or both. Then there is the problem that the US Congress might not ratify any agreement secured by Trump—a fact that allowed Trump to walk out of the JCPOA. Note how the US Congress has yet to even begin talking of ratifying the USMCA, the successor to NAFTA. The US record of respecting international law is utterly abysmal, whether it is dismissing negative judgments by the International Court of Justice (on Nicaragua and Iran), or by the UN Human Rights Council on Venezuela, or its unlawful acts of aggression against Iraq, Libya, and Syria, or its commission of torture, extrajudicial executions, extraterritorial sanctions, violation of diplomatic missions, propaganda inciting violence, and so forth. In other words, North Korea has been given very little reason to trust the US.
Sanctions clearly stood in the path of achieving anything of substance at the Hanoi summit. Once the US imposes sanctions, it never seems to know how to scale down. Sanctions become effectively permanent, an end in themselves. In place of removing sanctions, US officials, politicians, and the media elevate trivial and basic courtesies to the level of grand concessions: they thus inflate the value of a mere handshake, a photo, or a phone call. They therefore confuse the symbolic with the material, hence the insufferable US fretting about “optics” (image management). North Korea is dealing with a dangerously armed adversary that is also narcissistic, superficial, and dishonest—an ugly combination. What also stands out are the drastically differing visions of “total denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”. The US seems to think this means that North Korea would totally destroy all of its nuclear weapons manufacturing facilities and surrender all of its nuclear weapons. A different, more balanced view, is that the US should also dismantle its ability to threaten North Korea with nuclear destruction—or else how can one argue that the Korean peninsula has been “denuclearized”? What Trump walked out on was an entirely reasonable proposition offered by North Korea: the partial destruction of its nuclear facilities, in return for the partial termination of US sanctions (those that most hurt civilians). The US knew that North Korea would not surrender the keys that ensured regime survival. Even Trump himself did not expect full “denuclearization” to be an outcome, so what did he expect? Trump apparently brought nothing to the table. Trump misrepresenting the North Korean offer does not help matters for the future. Furthermore, well before the Hanoi summit, Kim Jong-un made it plainly clear that he expected the US to make concessions in return for concessions on his side. Intelligent arguments that even peace without disarmament would be a great achievement, were simply ignored. After all, Nixon’s deal with China did not require China to disarm, nor did Reagan’s agreements with Russia. The longer that the US continues maintaining the absurd position that a peace declaration is itself a concession, the longer such talks will continue to fail.
Regime change: when at the very same time that the US continues to threaten Iran and Venezuela, and the US president has committed himself to a war on socialism both at home and abroad, then why would a communist leader of the DPRK sit down with Trump and expect a balanced relationship of mutual respect? North Korea is dealing with the same US where Trump’s friends, including influential senators like Marco Rubio, wave pictures of a brutally murdered Muammar Gaddafi and publicly take lusty pride in regime change atrocity. Trump’s monologues in Twitter, where he fantasized about how much North Korea could be transformed (thanks to US capital investment), is basically a veiled desire by an acknowledged plunderer to steal North Korea out from under its people. Until the US formally and officially renounces regime change, permanently, it can continue to expect more failures like we witnessed in Hanoi.
The US might not be willing to learn these lessons, but North Korea certainly has: even before the summit there was news suggesting that North Korea was moving forward with its nuclear weapons program, and after the summit came more news that North Korea is rebuilding missile facilities.
Lessons from Caracas: One Failed Test after Another
The US is facing the distinct prospect that President Maduro will outlast President Trump, the latter becoming even more vulnerable to domestic efforts that seek to remove him from office by impeaching and/or imprisoning him—and in any case Trump’s re-election is far from certain. It’s one of the ironies to be discussed later, that Trump—the target of a domestic regime change movement—should align himself with his opponents in seeking the overthrow of a foreign leader. Can Americans ever make these connections?
There are a number of foreign leaders that the US tried to overthrow, for decades, leaders the US commanded “must go” and whose “days” were supposedly numbered. One of them, Fidel Castro, outlived and/or outlasted US presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama, before finally passing away naturally at a very advanced age. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad was told to go by Obama, who also said his days were numbered—Obama is gone, Assad is still firmly in power. The succession from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-un in North Korea is one that outlasted as many US presidential administrations as Cuba has done. Having the “mighty US” as a determined opponent is no guarantee that a government will simply collapse. On the other hand, having the US as a “friend” is no guarantee against the US one day deciding to assassinate or abduct a proxy.
The US-led regime change effort in Venezuela, by most accounts, is coming apart. Certainly, the sanctions are doing what they were intended to do: to inflict maximum hardship on all Venezuelans, regardless of their political affiliations. The legitimate government of Venezuela, however, has already shown an ability and determination to continue, in spite of those sanctions—so the sanctions are failing, just as they have always failed everywhere else to bring about regime change. The US then established two key tests by which to measure success in its efforts to overthrow President Maduro: one was the failed attempt to force entry for fake “humanitarian aid” from the US, and the second was the failure of daring the Venezuelan authorities to arrest Juán Guaidó when he recently returned to Venezuela after ignoring a court-ordered travel ban. It turns out that Guaidó does not matter enough to be arrested—he can travel freely in or out of Venezuela, because who cares.
The US had threatened Venezuela, obliquely, with an unspecified “strong and significant response” should Guaidó be arrested. That was the US engaging in projection: we dare you to arrest Guaidó, because we want you to arrest him. The Venezuelan authorities instantly sniffed out the bait—it was a clumsy attempt by the US to fabricate a provocation, while simultaneously inflating Guaidó’s value as an opposition “leader,” “interim president” even. It was thus an effort by the US to turn a joke into something serious and substantial. The likes of John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Mike Pence would have gladly “martyred” Guaidó for the cause, if this could advance US aims—and if Guaidó were smart (doubtful proposition), he would be looking over his back in two different directions at once. As it turns out, however, not even an arrest warrant was ever issued for Guaidó.
It’s not surprising then to already see a number of articles and interviews outlining the failures, the incompetence, the sheer frivolity, the lumbering foolishness, and disarray into which US regime change has fallen. This is added to the failed US-backed coup attempt against President Hugo Chávez in 2002. American frustration is palpable.
Lessons from Ottawa: Fix Your Own Damned House
They were already preparing their excuses, with fear-mongering from state media about “Russian meddling” in upcoming Canadian elections. The ruling Liberals, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—unable to free Canada from continuing US tariffs, despite caving in to Trump on NAFTA, were still pushing the Russia conspiracy theories (Russia, which never slapped tariffs on Canada, unlike our “friends”). But is it “Russian meddling” even when Canada furnishes RT.com with such a delicious opportunity to trounce Trudeau as this one? (See Danielle Ryan’s excellent, “Surprise! ‘Progressive hero’ Justin Trudeau is a fraud and a hypocrite”.)
More than once, but much more so now, Justin Trudeau has been exposed as a fraud, an empty, virtue-signalling hypocrite who, behind the masks of “diversity” and “inclusion,” panders as a minor technocrat in the service of transnational capitalists and powerful financial donors to his Liberal Party. In an ongoing saga of his abuse of power, unfolding still as this is being written, Trudeau has been revealed as attempting to pervert the course of justice in a series of moves that look increasingly corrupt.
Explosive truths were revealed by the former Attorney General, Jody Wilson-Raybould, who resigned (starting a series of high-profile resignations). She resigned in protest against Trudeau’s attempts to pressure her to change the course of the prosecution against the firm SNC-Lavalin (whose executives, by the way, once sat on the Board of Governors of Concordia University). One immediate result was that Trudeau lost any “moral authority” to govern Canada. Having demanded that President Maduro in Venezuela get out of office, now Trudeau faced the same domestic curse suffered by other regime changers before him, including Nicolas Sarkozy, Hillary Clinton, David Cameron, and possibly Trump. Now the calls were all about demanding that Trudeau himself go, that he immediately resign, and that early elections should be called in Canada. (At least the Conservatives are being tragically consistent: they want regime change both at home and in Venezuela.)
When all of the sordid details are played out, over and over again, during the upcoming electoral campaign, and the Liberals lose, they will likely cry about “Russian interference”. In other words, they will lose like losers. Can Canadians ever make such connections?
Lessons from Tel Aviv: Also Fix Your Own Damned House
At the same time as Justin Trudeau’s collapse in Canada, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has been formerly indicted on corruption charges. Netanyahu, who endorsed regime change in Iraq, Libya, Iran, Syria, and most recently Venezuela too, instead faces domestic regime change.
Who exactly are these people? Where do such persons come from? I mean these figures who presume to wag a finger at others, to lecture and even hector them, commanding the removal of this leader and demanding the resignation of the other leader, when just behind them are closets full of skeletons?
Among the lessons of these recent episodes, or what I call “reality checks” for regime change, are the following, pretty basic ones (perhaps that is one reason why they are so easily forgotten or overlooked):
- Impunity: Can Western leaders afford to govern imperiously, as if they could afford to rule with impunity? No, there are always consequences, and the less powerful and the more vulnerable the leader, the greater the impact of those consequences. Having worked to establish regime change as acceptable in the international sphere, they cannot escape its domestic applications and translations. Having interfered in the domestic affairs of other nations, they invite other nations to do the same in return.
- Limits to power: one can sanction, threaten, demand, petition, smear or even invade a target state, but there is little guarantee that what will result is regime change. Not even being opposed by the world financial centre equipped with the most powerful military, means that regime change is a certain outcome.
- Loss of credibility: loss of legitimacy inevitably follows from the loss of credibility. It means there is a loss of persuasive authority. A Western leader of a liberal democracy, who threatens and demands the resignation of another country’s leader, better have all his ducks in a row at home. If it is discovered that you routinely lied about your behind-the-scenes actions at home, why should anybody believe you when you start preaching about those abroad?
- Authoritarian liberalism: we live in a period where supposed liberals, acting putatively in the name of saving “liberalism” and “liberal democracy,” resort to the most illiberal means. Liberals today are more likely to be reactionary, orthodox, authoritarian, and even violent. Whatever checklist of contemporary “threats” and “dangers” you might be keeping, feel free to add liberals to it.
- The power of elections: while I cannot do this subject any justice in just a few words, we have to beware the seductive belief that elections will result in real change. For example, in the US, it is very doubtful that elections themselves will end the regime change addiction that pervades American society, American moralism, and American exceptionalism. Right now in the US Congress those who can be counted on—unreliably—as standing against regime change, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Even if any one of them ever won presidential office, the big question we should be asking (especially since 2016), is whether they would even be allowed to effectively govern. American politicians are notorious flip-flopping fabricators of fables, so even those who seem to be against regime change one day, are likely to disappoint the very next day. It will have to be something beyond elections that impedes the US will to engage in regime change.