The leaders of the G7 economic powers thought they were about to sign an economic agreement last week in Quebec, but Donald Trump blew it up.
Trump is threatening a global trade war in pursuit of his “America First” economic strategy, but there was more to this particular tantrum. He also wanted to look tough before he moved on to his next summit — with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Singapore this week.
“He is not going to permit any show of weakness on the trip to negotiate with North Korea,” as Trump’s economic advisor Larry Kudlow explained to CNN.
Weeks earlier, Trump had briefly canceled the Singapore summit, perhaps to avoid appearing too eager to make a deal to get Kim to give up his nuclear weapons.
Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in stepped in to save the Singapore meeting by holding an impromptu second inter-Korean summit of their own. Kim also responded to Trump’s cancellation with a cordial invitation to re-engage when Trump was ready.
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Despite the false starts and endless posturing, all three of these leaders have been impelled by various factors to overcome obstacles to engagement.
North Korea and South Korea have kept moving forward because both ruling elites would benefit from a peaceful end to a 65-year militarized standoff. The process of engagement has raised popular expectations on both sides of the divided peninsula — expectations that neither leader wants to disappoint.
The US is showing up to the summit in part because Trump wants a starring role in something…big. More generally, the US establishment doesn’t want its country targeted with a new set of nuclear weapons.
As long as only Koreans bore the threat of casualties, US leaders were content to pour arms into the region and trade war threats with the North. Besides, the presence of a threatening, but defeatable, adversary gave the US an excuse to deploy its most sophisticated military hardware right on the doorstep of its main superpower rivals, China and Russia.
The equation changed last year when North Korea came up with a credible nuclear deterrent. The lesson seems to be: If you want to get the attention of American imperialism, you need a weapon that threatens things it cares about, such as San Francisco. Threatening Seoul won’t do.
Trump’s fair-weather friend Sen. Lindsey Graham spilled the beans on the Today Show early last August when he quoted Trump as saying: “If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong-un from acquiring nuclear weapons], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there.”
South Koreans noticed Trump’s indifference to their safety. One poll last year found that only 9 percent of people approved of Trump’s performance as president.
This public mood bolstered the South Korean president’s freedom to stand up to Trump’s threats of “fire and fury” against the North. In mid-August, Moon Jae-in declared: “Only the Republic of Korea [South Korea’s official name] can make the decision for military action on the Korean Peninsula. Without the consent of the Republic of Korea, no country can determine to take military action.”
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Moon has tried consistently to promote engagement between Trump and Kim because of personal conviction, but his decisiveness also seems to stem from the way he came into office. He won a special election last May through the force of a popular movement that brought down his predecessor, Park Guen-hye.
Week after week through the winter and spring of 2016-17, millions took to the streets of Seoul in candlelit vigils because of Park’s corruption, her lack of response to a ferry disaster, and her attacks on workers. Park was a hardline opponent of North Korea and the daughter of longtime military dictator Park Chung-hee.
After Park — and especially with Trump blustering around in Washington — South Koreans were ready for a president like Moon to revive the “Sunshine Policy” that aims toward peaceful reunification of the peninsula.
The “candlelight revolution” may have swept Moon into power, but he and his party aren’t part of any anti-establishment insurgency. The Democratic Party lagged behind the movement with a late endorsement of Park’s impeachment, and Moon has reneged on his promise to stop the deployment of the US missile-defense system called THAAD.
When Trump said in May that the US should consider pulling its 28,000 troops out of Korea, Moon said in the same week that the troops should remain as a counterweight to Chinese and Japanese power — even if there’s peace on the peninsula.
In other words, Moon may oppose recent US threats of war, but he’s in no hurry to get out from under US imperial patronage.
While the Sunshine Policy is about establishing peace, it’s not a left-wing initiative. Sunshine has major backers in the capitalist oligarchy — organized largely in family-run industrial conglomerates known as the chaebol — because the policy promises to match up their investment capital with low-paid Northern workers.
Elite support for the policy was evident as far back as the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, when the Hyundai family bribed Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, with $400 million just to hold the meeting. The South Korean state kicked in another $100 million, in what became known as the “cash-for-summit” scandal.
The Hyundai chaebol was a major driver of an industrial complex in Kaesong, North Korea, which Park shut down in 2016.
Despite Moon’s commitment to capitalist and US imperial interests, he did raise the minimum wage by 16 percent in January — and, most important for the Singapore summit, he has persisted in engagement with the Kim regime.
Policies like this are a major source of his current approval rating, which recently stood at 83 percent.
This popularity is based on raised expectations, including hopes for peace. Young men, for example, have reportedly begun to hope for an end to mandatory military service. Moon thus has extra incentive to press on with diplomacy — in order not avoid disappointing the popular hopes he’s raised, not to mention the hopes of the industrialists.
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Kim Jong-un has also raised expectations, North and South, especially since his New Year’s address, which promised engagement with the South and a turn in the North from military investment toward economic development.
Kim’s effect on Southern popular opinion is remarkable. After his performance at his first summit with Moon on April 27, a Southern poll found that 78 percent of respondents trusted Kim — a meteoric increase from a 10 percent approval rating just six weeks before.
Concerned as ever for the continuance of his regime, Kim must care about Southern opinion now, since he is trying to set himself up as a legitimate head of the northern part of a converging Korea.
A shift in youth perceptions of the North is significant, especially since many young people became activists in the movement to oust Park. The new generation, however, has no feeling of personal connection to the North and tends to view it as a backward, separate and hostile country.
Nevertheless, youth opinion shifted dramatically after the April summit. Among freshmen at Kookmin University, for example, “the number of students who had a positive image toward Kim increased from 4.7 percent to 48.3 percent while those viewing him negatively decreased from 87.7 percent to 25.8 percent.” But another poll found that “41.4 percent of young South Koreans still see Korean reunification as unnecessary.”
Kim’s play for southern public approval may have encouraged him to moderate his belligerence toward the US, in order to make Trump seem like the odd mad man out with his continued warmongering. This aim of appearing as a statesman in South Korean eyes may explain Kim’s measured tone after Trump’s first cancellation of the Singapore meeting.
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Kim’s new promise to focus the state’s attention on economic development must also be raising expectations in the North.
During a period of famine in the 1990s, Kim’s father looked the other way while Northern citizens developed private markets for farm produce and other goods. If Kim Jong-un really shifts resources away from military investment, North Koreans can look forward to making even more money from their private efforts.
Meanwhile, soon after coming to power in 2012, Kim embarked on structural economic reforms that provide freedom to managers at the enterprise level — freedom to hire and fire at will, set wages at variance with national guidelines, and cultivate their own suppliers and buyers without going through the national planning process.
These reforms, which mirror the early measures of Chinese economic liberalization in the 1980s, have promoted the development of a new middle class, at least somewhat independent of the ruling party hierarchy. This group definitely has an interest in Kim following through with diplomatic engagement that can open the economy even further.
North Korea’s working class is overwhelmingly poor. Anecdotal reports, including from asylum-seekers who make it into South Korea, suggest that workers harbor intense hatred toward the rich upper layers of the party hierarchy and toward residents of the city of Pyongyang, where wealth is concentrated.
To some extent, Kim seems to be able to use the popular cult of the Kim family to deflect popular anger away from himself — and toward those just a few layers below him. Right now, says North Korea specialist Andrei Lankov, “Kim Jong-un is popular. Everyone supports him.”
Kim wants to keep it that way. The burden of domestic expectations has helped drive him toward the Singapore summit, where he hopes that de-escalation of hostility with the US will bring relief from sanctions — and open up export possibilities, access to international finance, and investment from countries such as China and South Korea.
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It’s impossible to predict what will happen when Kim and Trump get together. Both men seem fond of improvising, and too many variables could affect the outcome.
But both men have strong reasons for being there, which makes it possible to guess — insofar as anything involving Donald Trump is rationally predictable — at one thing that won’t happen: Trump isn’t likely to walk away from the talks in their earliest moments, as he has threatened to.
Trump told reporters last weekend that he would be able to tell within the first minute whether Kim was serious. But if he walks away, ordinary Koreans, North and South, would blame him for the failure.
For the moment at least, Trump and Kim are in a strange competition for Korean public opinion, especially Southern opinion. In the South, Trump is now only slightly more popular — or, more precisely, slightly less unpopular — than Kim Jong-un. The difference between them is smaller than the margin of error in the poll, which was taken at the end of May, with Trump at 32 percent approval and Kim at 31 percent.
If Trump were simply to leave the summit without making a visible effort to find common ground, he would risk returning the US to the position that George W. Bush created in 2003, when practically all of Asia blamed Bush for the danger of war with North Korea.
In this way, the collaboration between Moon and Kim has gone some way to boxing Trump in.
If Trump did bail out of the summit — which is certainly possible — his lack of effort would give Moon public backing to be even more emphatic about refusing to cooperate in Trump’s belligerence, and it would encourage South Korea, China and Russia to ignore the sanctions that are squeezing the North.
Trump seems to have an inkling that he can’t achieve a quick coup, either. On his way from Quebec to Singapore, he uncharacteristically lowered expectations in speaking to reporters: “I feel that Kim Jong-un wants to do something great for his people…There’s a good chance it won’t work out. There’s probably an even better chance it will take a period of time.”
Most important for Kim’s regime is some kind of guarantee of its security — or several steps in that direction, since no single measure could really serve as a guarantee. This might include a peace treaty or a nonaggression pact, an end to US-South Korea war games that rehearse the overthrow of the Northern state, and the like.
The North has made it emphatically clear that it won’t give up its nuclear deterrent just for sanctions relief or aid — the carrots that Trump has recently dangled as incentives.
Whether Trump likes it or not, any settlement of hostilities with the North will have to involve phased and reciprocal measures over some period of time. For this reason, the summit seems more likely to produce statements of common intent, including promises for further engagement, rather than a major breakthrough.
In the meantime, any reduction of hostility will raise questions among other countries about why they should continue to help in the strangling of the North with sanctions. It may also raise questions in South Korea among a widening range of activists about why their country serves as a military tool of the US against the North.
This article also appears at Socialist Worker.