In 1945, with the surrender of Japan, which had occupied Korea during the second world war, the United Nations put that country under trusteeship. Much like what was happening in Germany, zones of occupation were allotted to the victors. In Germany there were four zones, the US and the Soviet Union having shared the war burden with France and Great Britain. At that time, the United States was obsessed by the domino theory and the conviction that it had to prevent Communism from spreading from one country to another, not only in Europe but also in Asia. In Asia, the UN backed the creation of two separate Koreas, a communist regime in the north under the Soviet Union, and a South Korea tutored in the art of capitalist development under the protection of American troops.
After three years of escalating tensions, the North invaded the South, setting off the Korean War which would claim 35,000 American lives and almost 2 million Korean lives. The conflict was a draw, finally ending in 1953 with an Armistice which, 65 years later, has still not been superseded by a Peace Treaty, the Korean people still living under two separate governments. The initial reason for the delay was the American obsession with what it called the domino theory, the conviction that it had to prevent Communism from spreading from one country to another, not only in Europe but also in Asia, by continuing to hold on to South Korea, but that excuse is long gone.
By 1972, President Nixon began making overtures to the Asian Communist giant, China, and in 1979 President Carter established full-fledged relations with its leader, Mao tse Tung. By then, North Korea had embarked on a nuclear program in reaction to its isolation by the West, becoming a thorn in China’s side as well.
In 1994, according to an Agreed Framework brokered by Carter, North Korea committed to dismantling its plutonium reactor at Yongbyon, in return for two civilian light water nuclear power stations, which the US saw as less of a proliferation risk. Until those reactors were built, North Korea would receive shipments of US-financed fuel oil. Although never mentioned in the US media, Congress did its best to slow down fuel deliveries, while continually postponing construction of the reactors. Inevitably, North Korea continued its nuclear program, and when it emerged that it was pursuing a secret uranium route to making a bomb, the hawks in the Bush administration, led by John Bolton, killed the Agreed Framework. The pattern had been set: it’s North Korea that is in bad faith.
Through three generations of the Kim dynasty and several US administrations, the biggest obstacle to a settlement has been making agreements stick, as different factions vied for control of US policymaking. The accord’s defenders suggested that the uranium enrichment program was the regime’s hedge against the US reneging on the deal, and could have been closed down through negotiations. They also argued that it held back the weapons program for most of the 1990s. Bush’s chief negotiator with North Korea, the mild-mannered Christopher Hill, disagreed with the decision to end the agreement. and eventually he re-established contacts with the North Koreans. In 2005, six-party talks revived parts of the Agreed Framework, such as the eventual provision of light water reactors by the West in return for “the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula according to the principle of ‘commitment for commitment, action for action.”
Notwithstanding this unequivocal language, within weeks, the US Treasury used counter-terror legislation to impose new sanctions, freezing $23m (£17m) in North Korean assets in a bank in the Chinese territory of Macau. Hill saw it as an act of sabotage by hawks such as Bolton in the Bush administration, and US diplomats who had negotiated the 2005 statement were also taken by surprise. Although it was a relatively small amount of money, the action infuriated the North Koreans and the Chinese, who saw it as a violation of the spirit of the joint statement. As relations spiraled downwards, North Korea tested seven ballistic missiles in July 2006, and conducted its first nuclear test in October the same year.
The US ended up refunding North Korea the money it had frozen, and also provided shipments of fuel oil, in return for which the regime closed down its Yongbyon reactor and provided a partial inventory of its nuclear program. But the six-party talks became bogged down on the question of verification. As before, North Korea was prepared to allow inspectors in, but sought to limit what they could see. Kim Jong-un struck a deal with the US, in February 2012, known as the Leap Year Agreement, under which he agreed to suspend enrichment in Yongbyon under IAEA verification and to suspend nuclear and missile testing. In exchange, the Obama administration pledged to send food aid. The deal fell apart within weeks when North Korea conducted missile launches, which it insisted were for satellite deployment. Seeing them as a breach of the agreement, the US halted plans to send food aid, while the accord’s defenders suggested that the the regime was merely hedging against the US reneging on the deal.
The stalemate continued from one US president to the next, with each side accusing the other of breaching agreements, in an inextricable chicken and egg saga. Newly elected President Trump, having been warned by outgoing President Obama that North Korea constituted the greatest danger facing the US, saw an opportunity to make his mark on foreign policy as the deep state tried to force regime change in a country with which he had important personal and business relations.
The American press claimed that US sanctions brought Kim to the negotiating table. The truth, which few Americans appear to have imagined, was that Kim’s unexpected ability to hit American cities with nuclear armed missiles brought the US to the table. After several months of reciprocal threats and red button one-upmanship, Trump met with the young Korean leader in the nation-state of Singapore, a unique Asian social and economic phenomenon. This was quickly followed by a meeting in the demilitarized zone between Kim and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in, each with their wives.
The American press stinted on the celebrations between the two ruling families and their ministers, which unmistakably revealed the two Koreas determination to retake control of their destiny. Like much else that goes on in the world, they were amply covered by France 24 and other foreign outlets. From festive banquet to working meetings, the two-day event looked very much like a fait accompli. Spurred by the display, smiling South Koreans stood in line at restaurants to enjoy North Korea’s signature dish of cold noodles.
Shortly thereafter, when Secretary of State Pompeo was dispatched to move the peace process forward, Kim refused to be told by Washington what to do, and how and when to do it, and sent him packing. (Subsequently, Trump wisely decided that it was too soon for him to go back there.)
The leaders of North and South Korea met again this week, demanding that the US sign a declaration officially ending the war, but Pompeo smoothly described it as ‘progress toward denuclearization’. Washington wants the North to list its nuclear sites and weapons stockpiles and agree to a timetable for dismantling them, under inspection before granting that petition. Illustrating America’s attitude of superiority toward the rest of the world, seasoned journalist Andrea Mitchell flippantly asked: “Why should we give North Korea anything?”
The answer is that in the eyes of the world, the Koreans are entitled to have ‘one country, two regimes’, similar to Taiwan being part of ‘one China, two systems’. By continuing to meet, they are by-passing Uncle Sam, as China continues to turn sand dunes in the South China Sea into landing strips.
Deena Stryker is an international expert, author and journalist that has been at the forefront of international politics for over thirty years, exlusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.