The first summit meeting between US president Donald Trump and North Korean president Kim Jong-Un was held in Singapore in June 2018. After the extraordinary speech by Trump at the United Nations in September 2017 when Trump said that if the United States was forced to defend itself (sic) “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime” the fact that any meeting at all was held was a minor miracle.
That Singapore Summit ended with a Joint Statement, sitting out a sequenced four-stage agreement. For its part the United States promised to lift some sanctions and to end the state of war that technically still existed since the ceasefire that ended the hostilities of the Korean War in 1953.
North Korea for its part committed itself to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and to repatriate the remains of US personnel killed during the Korean War.
These were small steps, but welcomed as a better alternative than the overt hostility and threats of the previous year. There was some optimism that the second summit between the two leaders, held in Hanoi, Vietnam, in late February might advance further down the road toward a resolution of what had become an increasingly dangerous standoff.
When the talks broke down without any agreement the only surprise was that people were surprised by that fact. The false optimism ignored the history of the relationship between the two countries, and why that history helps explain the different expectations that each party brought to the Hanoi conference.
American interference in Korean affairs began in the 19th century when they forcibly sought to open Korea to the outside world, and specifically to US trade and investment.
That began a long and difficult relationship between the two nations, not assisted by an agreement between the US and Japan that Japan could have a free hand in Korea in exchange for not interfering with US ambitions to colonize the Philippines. Korea was a brutally treated colony of Japan from 1910 to 1945.
Korea was hardly “liberated” at the end of World War II. The American administration unilaterally decided on a partition of the country into two parts at the 38th parallel north, with the United States occupying the southern portion and the Soviet Union the north. The Soviet Union withdrew from the north in 1948 but the United States remained, and to this day South Korea is militarily occupied by 40,000+ US troops.
The US also stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea, but claim these have now been removed. More recently, the US installed the THAAD missile system in
South Korea, which unsurprisingly is perceived as a threat by not only North Korea, but also Russia and China.
No reunification was to be permitted by the United States. Instead they imported their pet dictator Syngman Rhee from his exile in the United States and appointed him as the head of the provisional South Korean Government, where he ruled with the assistance of people who had been collaborators with the Japanese occupiers. Both the North and the South were guilty of armed incursions into the other’s territory. This eventually resulted in a full-scale invasion of the South. It was an ill-considered move by the North Korea leader, grandfather of the present President Kim.
UN Security Council Resolution 82 of 25 June 1950 demanded the withdrawal of the North Korean forces. This was passed by nine votes to nil, with one abstention and one absentee (the Soviet Union). North Korea ignored the vote and a further vote, UNSC Resolution 83 was passed on 27 June 1950 authorising military action “to restore international peace and security in the area.”
It was long thought that the United States and its allies used the absence of the Soviet Union to pass those resolutions. We now know from the release in 2005 of a communication from Soviet leader Stalin to the Czech President Klement Gottwald on 27 August 1950 that the Soviet absence was intentional and part of a wider geopolitical manoeuvre by Stalin.
The American led coalition forces were able to rapidly drive the North Koreans out of the southern sector. The status quo had thus been restored, and arguably the terms of resolutions 82 and 83 had been met. The United States was not interested in restoring the status quo. Instead, they drove northward, reaching the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China. China was by this time governed by Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, although absurdly, China’s position on the United Nations Security Council was filled by the nationalist rump government of Chiang Kai-Shek who had fled to Formosa after defeat in the Chinese civil war, where he remained, protected by the United States Navy.
It was this overreaching by the US led coalition that inevitably brought China into the war, with devastating consequences for the coalition troops. The US and its allies were driven back to the 38th parallel, with heavy losses. Negotiations on an armistice began in July 19 51, but dragged on until the war ended on 27 July 1953. It is what happened in those intervening two years that are crucial to an understanding of North Korea’s current stance.
An air war was waged on the North. More bombs were dropped during those two years than during the entire Pacific Theatre phase of World War II, including 32,000 tonnes of napalm. Civilian targets were major victims, including housing, dams essential for rice production, and other infrastructure including hospitals, schools and churches. There was widespread famine. The war killed a quarter of North Korea’s civilian population.
According to a report published in 1952 by a committee of international lawyers under the chairmanship of Professor Heinrich Brandweiner of the University of Graz, Austria, the US led coalition waged bacteriological and chemical warfare on the north, which was a massive war crime even by the standards of the early 1950s.
It was, ironically, exactly what Trump had threatened in his September 2017 UN speech, the total destruction of North Korea.
With this background, and the history of the intervening 65 years, including breaches of previous agreements, notably the Agreed Framework negotiated by former president Jimmy Carter on behalf of the Clinton administration, it is completely unsurprising that the North Koreans were mistrustful of US intentions.
The North Koreans would also have had fresh in their minds the unilateral abrogation of international agreements that the Americans had entered into, including in very recent times the intermediate range nuclear weapons Treaty and the JCPOA Agreement with Iran, the latter being particularly relevant to the circumstances of North Korea.
If North Korea did not have nuclear weapons it is likely that Kim, or his father who preceded him in the presidency, would have suffered the same fate as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi, both of whom were falsely accused of having weapons of mass destruction. If they had in fact had such weapons they might still be alive and well today. Instead, their countries were destroyed on the altar of US geopolitical ambitions. They are precedents that President Kim would have noted and learned from.
It now seems apparent that if not Trump himself, his National Security adviser John Bolton came to the Hanoi meeting determined that no agreement would be reached. Bolton himself gave an interview to the American ABC network in early March in which he admitted that the American demands made at the Hanoi Summit included the demand of unilateral disarmament by North Korea before the United States would even consider the lifting of sanctions.
This was not only well beyond the agreed provisional framework of the Singapore Summit, it is a set of demands that no sovereign government could remotely consider agreeing to without inviting their complete destruction, which in the North Korean case would be a repeat of history.
The failure of the Hanoi Summit would also have been a great disappointment to South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In. Mr Moon had been proactive in promoting better relations with the north, not least because it is only via North Korea that the South can participate by road and rail links in China’s enormous Belt and Road Initiative.
It is unlikely at this stage that there will be a third Summit, at least not before a fundamental change in US foreign policy, and that seems highly unlikely. The big difference for North Korea in the future however, is that Russia and China are no longer willing to cooperate with the Americans in upholding existing sanctions, let alone the further sanctions the Americans are threatening. They clearly see the American plans for what they are: the dismemberment of a country which borders both their nations. A North Korea under American influence would represent an existential threat to both nations, and to be an important link in the American ambition, not only of the “containment” of both nations, but also undermining any threat to America’s perceived right to global hegemony.
That era has long gone, and the sooner the United States packs its bags and leaves not only Korea but the whole of the Asian region, the better will be the prospects for lasting peace.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.