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Thinking Beyond Presidents: Trump, Park, Kim and the Geopolitics of Korean Reunification

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The rapidly shifting conditions in Korea have left many scrambling for answers, as all the traditional narratives about the situation seem to have been upended.

After years of news items confidently declaring the North to be run by a totalitarian cult, in 2017 it turned out that it was actually South Korea’s Park Geun-Hye (on the subject of “dynastic rule” the granddaughter of the notorious dictator Park Chung-Hee) who was being cultured by millionaire shamanistic cult leader Choi Soon-Sil: Choi’s influence was so intensive it is said she even advised the president about what clothes to wear and what to say at press conferences.

The protests which erupted as this disturbing relationship was exposed rocked South Korean society, and severely confused Western analysts used to painting the Republic of Korea as a perfect bastion of liberal democracy in the east. The protests ended in Park’s ouster, and the election of the moderate Moon Jae-in. Park Geun-Hye had been an absolute disaster for the RoK’s relationship with the North, regularly impeding peace talks, and even shutting down the joint economic zone at Kaesong which was opened in 2002 by then president Kim Dae-Jung.

Yet more observant onlookers would have been aware that the change of fortunes in favor of peace cannot be solely placed on the shoulders of the RoK having a new president. The two Koreas have made dozens of such attempts to meet and discuss peace for decades, including the recent agreement to compete in the Winter Olympics in South Korea, where the athletes marched together under a unified banner and as a joint team in ice hockey. What has really opened the field for the possibility of dialogue and even a potential end to nearly 70 years of war is a more international question.

It is no accident that a few months ago hysteria regarding U.S. relations with Korea were at a fevered pitch, a situation which seems to perennially occur each year when the United States runs its combat drills jointly with South Korea, which they conduct on the border of the DMZ with live fire, using North Korean flags as targets. The missile scare in Hawaii is perhaps the most bizarre incident in this long history, where an entire state was actually put on alert for an incoming missile attack– but it is certainly not an isolated incident in decades of fear-mongering, paranoia and orientalist tropes being mobilized to prepare the U.S. population for war.

Aside countless articles stressing the Korean government’s belligerence, U.S. media is replete with openly racist propagandistic films and even a video game which narrates an invasion of the United States by the DPRK– this somewhat like a twisted mirror vision of the actual invasion of Korea by the United states which saw America leveling nearly the entire Northern half of the peninsula, resulting in an estimated 3-5 million dead on the Korean side (around 30% of the population). In the game players are provided a guilt-free context in which to slaughter oriental caricatures of North Koreans.

It is remarkable that, leading up to the historic meeting of Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-In, the media was engaged in caricaturing Trump and Kim as mirror images of one another, unable to break the cultural imagination which paints all “tyrants” in a single color, mobilizing juvenile jokes about anatomy or haircuts, and endlessly playing into oriental stereotypes about Asiatic “strongmen” and Korea as a “child nation”. What kind of cultural schizophrenia are we experiencing when Trump and Kim are simultaneously children, and at the verge of annihilating each other in some kind of masculine power game?

And most importantly, how did this alleged “confrontation” suddenly manifest into one of the most ambitious peace talks since the Korean war? As a point of historical fact, Trump’s relationship to Korea is relatively more conciliatory than previous presidents. The U.S. has long used the ROK as a military tool against its enemies in the east; it is no coincidence that both South Korea and Israel were both created by the UN in 1948.

Before his “change of heart” regarding Korea, Jimmy Carter’s military chief in Korea John Wickham Jr. openly declared that “Korea is not yet ready for Democracy” and in 1980 rolled in tanks to assist Chun Doo-hwan in crushing a democratic uprising in Gwangju in an effort to prevent what had happened in Iran (a revolution which overthrew the brutal CIA-installed dictator, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) from happening in Korea. Chun issued the death penalty to pro-reunification leader Kim Dae-Jung (a major figure in the Gwangju Uprising) for treason (later overturned in exchange for U.S. military aid), and the next year, Chun was the first head of state to visit Reagan after his inauguration in 1981.

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Brutal sanctions resulted in severely exacerbating famine conditions in the North during the 1990s “Arduous March” period (the economic fallout resulting from a variety of factors, notably the collapse the DPRK’s largest trading partner: the USSR). The sanctions failed to achieve regime change potential on their own, and Bill Clinton even made full preparations for a first strike bombing campaign against the country. Obama was no different, announcing his “pivot toward Asia” policy, pushing for disastrous free trade policies while bolstering U.S. military presence in the region, including installing a massive missile deployment station on Jeju island, the same site of the U.S.-led Jeju massacre.

Whereas Trump is undoubtedly not as significant in the process as the actors on both sides of Korea who have been pushing for reunification since start of the conflict, his par for the course “hellfire and fury” rhetoric aside, both Moon and South Korea’s foreign minister Kang Kyung-wah have praised the president’s role in facilitating the process. The Trump administration has also stressed engagement in an almost unprecedented fashion, contributing flood relief, issuing Visas for North Korean delegates, and agreeing to sit down and meet with Kim Jong-un… even conceding that denuclearization would become “a goal and not a condition” of the discussion!

Even fierce opponents of Trump’s presidency like U.S. Army Colonel Ann Wright went on the record on Democracy Now saying: “Absolutely. Ninety-nine percent of the things that President Trump is doing, I don’t agree with. But even when he was running for office, when he said, ‘I will talk to people. I will talk to Kim Jong-un,’ it was like, ‘Well, that’s a very good statement.’ And indeed, he’s followed through, saying that he will.”

This being said, there is no purpose in praising Trump individually. The most Trump can be commended for is allowing the process to take place at all, instead of flexing U.S. military might and brandishing U.S. support of the South as a political chess-piece to continue the conflict. 

In actuality, this is about a more dangerous trend of imagining that individual presidents are the most crucial factor in these geopolitical considerations.

This is why there is an apparent disjunction between Trump’s different rhetorical strategies and actions. We need to move away from trapping our hopes (Obama) or fears (Trump) in individual figures, and return to large-scale structural thinking about geopolitics, otherwise we will end up unable to navigate these seeming incongruities, leaving anti-imperial sentiments to bottom out upon the arrival of a new figure in power as occurred after Bush’s presidency.

What stake did the U.S. have in preventing peace in the region besides maintaining geopolitical hegemony? What continuously compelled previous presidents to go out of their way to prevent this from occurring? To answer this question, we need only look at the stocks for companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin which plummeted 15% immediately following the recent peace negotiations. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and General Dynamics spend tens of millions of dollars lobbying congress to increase military spending, obviously indicating that peace was not in their interests.

These weapons manufacturers were among the largest contributors to Obama’s presidential candidacy, even outpacing his Republican opponents. Trump’s campaign also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from defense contractors, but was outpaced by Hillary Clinton who received over 200% more from major weapons dealers who supported her proposal for a no-fly zone in Syria.

It would seem that the naive adage from the ’60s that “peace is bad for business” is still a grim reality in the contemporary world, or at least in US politics. Whether or not the weapons manufacturer’s influence will eventually win out over desire for peace is yet unknown, but as the first country on earth to defeat the United States militarily, we can hope that Korea’s spirit will again overcome those who peddle death for living.

In any event, the recent peace talks again show that there is far more at play than a changing of the guards at the top of society.

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