Donald Trump’s boosters are still cheering his nuclear summit with Kim Jong-Un. Some are even talking about a Nobel Peace Prize. Many Democrats, on the other hand, are calling Trump out for, as they see it, giving away the store. They argue that he gave Kim credibility and a long-sought cancellation of war games on the North’s border while essentially offering nothing more than a vague promise to “denuclearize” — whatever that means — at some uncertain time in the future.
The U.S. peace movement has for decades worked to free the world of the scourge of nuclear weapons but has profoundly disagreed with the Trump administration on almost every front. Can, or should, peace advocates and their progressive allies support Trump’s supposed détente with the North? Moreover, should they support denuclearization if it only entails North Korea surrendering its modest arsenal, when the movement has, for decades, demanded that nukes be abolished, mutually, verifiably and universally? And, as always, there is the question of how we get from here to there.
This ‘do as I say, not as I do’ double standard creates an incentive for non-nuclear states to develop weapons and obtain a deterrent.
Consider: Our government and those of other nuclear-armed states are universally opposed to nuclear proliferation — the spread of atomic weapons to currently non-nuclear states — but have been steadfastly opposed to giving up their own nuclear capabilities. When the so-called “Ban Treaty,” which would outlaw all nuclear weapons, came before the United Nations last summer, 123 nations supported it (out of 178), but not one of the nine nuclear-armed states got on board.
It is also worthy of note that the United States is legally bound by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed in 1968 and ratified in 1970. Ratified treaties are, under the U.S. Constitution, deemed “the highest law of the land,” but our government consistently ignores Article VI, which reads:
Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.
The United States, however, has not taken the treaty seriously, except to use it to pressure non-nuclear states. In fact, through its periodic “nuclear posture reviews,” it has made clear its intention to maintain a nuclear arsenal in perpetuity. And our government has adopted a $1.2 trillion plan to “modernize” its nuclear-weapons capabilities. These actions are fueling a new arms race with Russia and China. This is very costly, dangerous and completely unnecessary.
And this “do as I say, not as I do” double standard creates an incentive for non-nuclear states to develop weapons and obtain a deterrent to discourage aggression like the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the U.S.-led NATO assault on Libya in 2011. Both of these regime-change wars have devastated the countries they ostensibly were out to help and left them embroiled in violent internal conflict to this day.
North Korea in Historical Context
It also might help to recall that as many as three million North Koreans were killed in the 1950-53 Korean War, about 20 percent of the population. The United States dropped more than half a million tons of bombs on the North, as well as napalm. As Air Force General Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, put it, “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea.”
Almost no North Korean family went unscathed, and this helps explain their animosity towards and fear of the United States. It also helps to understand why they find the huge U.S.-South Korean war games right on their doorstep as threatening. It is always possible that, under the pretense of an exercise, their adversaries could launch a surprise attack.
Trump on Korea
Donald Trump’s foreign policy has ranged from erratic, at best, to very destructive. He has pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear agreement, two important steps forward undertaken under President Barack Obama. And, in moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, he has inflamed the Israel-Palestine conflict even further. He has insulted foreign leaders, including major U.S. allies, while heaping high praise on brutal despots. He’s continued and expanded current wars and threatened new ones. And it seems like he sees one of his main jobs on the world stage as being an arms salesman, hawking the wares of the military-industrial complex hither and yon.
Perhaps the most disconcerting moments of his presidency came in his war of words with North Korea in 2017. He threatened that the North Koreans “will be met with fire and the fury like the world has never seen,” and tauntingly dismissed Kim Jong-Un as “little rocket man” and “a sick puppy.” He not only threatened to unleash a nuclear attack that would “totally destroy North Korea,” but in an adolescent (and cartoonishly symbolic) outburst he stated “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
Measured against the pushing-to-the-brink-of-nuclear-war position we were in in 2017, Trump’s current diplomacy with North Korea is a big improvement. Even if the results of their summit were more photo-op than substance, it is far better to be sitting down and talking, than it is to be threatening what should be unthinkable, launching a nuclear war.
The joint statement signed at the end of the summit is quite vague. It includes a pledge that the “DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” but there is no explanation as to what “complete denuclearization” means, on what timeline it would be attained or how it would be verified. There is also no indication whether “complete denuclearization” includes the removal of nuclear-armed U.S. military forces from South Korea or the waters surrounding Korea. As such, this is pretty hollow rhetoric. But hollow rhetoric is an improvement over bellicose rhetoric.
Trump has also come in for significant criticism for “giving without getting.” It is noted that he agreed to cancel U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises with no corresponding concession by the North Koreans. In point of fact, these exercises, or war games, should never have been held in the first place. As Trump noted, they are “provocative.” Mobilizing tens of thousands of troops, on land, in the air and on the sea and staging mock invasions close to the border of another country is clearly unacceptable, and, due to the ambiguous nature of the mobilization, could easily be suspected of providing cover for an actual military assault. Imagine how the United States would have reacted during the Cold War if Cuba and the Soviet Union held similar exercises off the coast of Florida.
What Do the Korean People Want?
While it is hard to know what the people of North Korea want, as it is not an open society, we know from multiple polls that the overwhelming majority of South Koreans want an end to the tensions, a peace treaty ending the Korean War, mutual recognition and steps toward disarmament. In fact, a recent poll indicated that 88 percent of South Koreans support the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration, which calls for peace between the two Koreas and steps toward disarmament. Their wishes seem to dovetail with those of many in the Korean diaspora, which were laid out in a pre-summit statement of unity by Korean-Americans and allies.
Will North Korea disarm? Time will tell. But it is, of course, not just up to the North Korean leadership. A lot depends upon how they perceive the intentions of the United States. They would clearly be more likely to make moves in that direction if they saw a de-escalation of tensions and U.S. moves toward making peace. On the other hand, seeing the United States reject other agreements, including the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accords, does not help. If Donald Trump really wants a Nobel Peace Prize, he will clearly have to do more than just have one meeting gushing praise on an autocratic leader. The United States will have to do its part to create an atmosphere of mutual trust.
And liberals and those on the left, while standing firm against Trump’s overall agenda, need to recognize that, just as a stopped clock tells the right time a couple of times a day, some of Trump’s actions could be worth applauding. Bernie Sanders gets this, and in a prepared statement, while noting it was “very light on substance,” he declared the Singapore meeting “a positive step in de-escalating tensions between our countries, addressing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and moving toward a more peaceful future.” He further stated, “Congress has a key role to play in making sure this is a meaningful process, not just a series of photo ops.” If you agree, please urge others to support steps to peace.
Mark Haim is a longtime advocate for peace, justice, sustainability and climate action. He serves as director of Mid-Missouri Peaceworks, a grassroots activist group.
Photo: Two madmen with nuclear weapons. Credit: White House/Twitter.