Inforos (Russia) interview with Tim Anderson, Director of the Centre for Counter Hegemonic Studies
US President Donald Trump announced that he will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for the second time in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi on February 27-28. Inforos spoke about the two sides’ positions ahead of the summit with Tim Anderson, an Australian academic and activist.
Trump is looking for some sort of foreign policy gains. He hasn’t really gained very much, he was going to get out of Syria, and he has not done that yet. Apparently, he still wants to do it, I think mainly because his pragmatic instinct tells him that he does not want to be associated with a losing war – he adopted a war from his predecessor.
In relation to Korea, Korean course is a 70-year old war that every US president pretty much has inherited. There is still state of war there, there have been no peace treaties since 1953. And, of course, there was three-years’ war before that. The fact that Trump engaged directly in talks with the North Korean leader is a fascinating thing. From the US point of view it really comes as a result of the North Koreans’ developing and demonstrating their possession of nuclear weapons, and their willingness to start talking peace on a basis of respect.
And to some extent Trump delivered on that during the meeting in Singapore. We have to put this in context that some other things are going on in Korea. One is the important breakthrough between North and South Korea. This has happened before, and it has been stalled or sabotaged, if you like, because there still exists in the south of Korea very-very strong sentiment in favor of reunification. And the North has always been in favor of reunification despite the two very different systems. So the momentum that was begun last year with the Winter Olympics in South Korea and then the summit meetings between the leaders there, and subsequently I think three summit meetings between the North Korean leader and the Chinese leader have shifted the dynamics significantly on the peninsula.
In some respect, Trump, if he is well-advised, is playing catch-up politics here. In other words, for example, if the rail line from Seoul to Pyongyang goes through, if some of the joint projects they are talking about happen, it will be against the wishes of the US, because the US has not wished to leave the Korean peninsula. It is an important staging post for them, it is an important base next to Russia, next to China, and that is one of the main reasons they want to keep their foot in the door, so to speak, on the north-east Asian continent there. They do not want to go out.
But if there is a significant breakthrough between North and South Korea, both Koreas stand to gain from it, and it is only the US really that stands to lose. So how is the US going to stop its demonstrated irrelevance to the Korean peninsula – that is an important question. You can already see elements of sabotage of this North—South soaring last year, for example, the US general project tried to stop the development of the rail line across the border because theoretically it was a UN-controlled area and the US has its sanctions against North Korea. So they are using a number of pretexts to try and stop developments between the north and the south. So that is going on in the background.
When it comes to the negotiations over nuclear deals, the problem is that the North Koreans know that the US does not really understand negotiations, even before you have a person as crass and as uncultured, let’s say, as Donald Trump who simply demands things of people and put offside his European friends and other friends by the crassness of the demands. When it comes to a traditional enemy like the North Koreans, the North Koreans know that the US has great difficulty in negotiating, they expect the other side to surrender. They expect the North Koreans to surrender their nuclear weapons and leave US nuclear weapons on the peninsula, for example.
So the North Koreans, realizing that there is a great incapacity on the part of the US to negotiate, but on the other hand, by doing it, by talking to Trump and by saying we are going to stop testing and so on, although having not given up their weapons, of course, they can prove the goodwill with South Korea and with China. Of course, China is extremely important for North Korea as its biggest commercial partner, there is a new tourism regime with China and North Korea, so Trump in many respects is trying to demonstrate the relevance of the US to this situation.
He is trying to focus attention on the fact that somehow the US relationship with North Korea is more important than the North Korean relationship with South Korea or the North Korean relationship with China. That is not the case; of course, the US is the foreign body in North-East Asia, everyone in the region knows that it is there because they have this jealous hegemonic plan, to try to outflank Russia and China. The things that really obsess the US is the potential power of China, in particular, and also Russia. And the worry that the Europeans are going to split off and develop some independent policy or some independent relationship with Russia, for example, that is really at the core of the concerns of the US. They are more concerned about potential competitors than little countries. North Korea is a little country, it has been a pretext for all sorts of things, but now it is a pretext for the US keeping a foothold there on the Asian continent, and they are really concerned about China and Russia.
They say that North Koreans have developed some more weapons in the meantime, but they have stopped their testing. So they have made an offer there, they have stopped the testing, they have made a gesture of goodwill, these gestures are very important for South Korea, and they are very important for China. They are the more potentially constructive relationships that North Korea has and wants to have. It does not really care so much about economic relationship with the US, it is a traditional enemy, it has tried to kill North Korea, it bombed it almost into oblivion 65 years ago, they remember all those sorts of things. But, at the same time, they talk the language of… let’s have the Korean peninsula a nuclear- free zone.
Knowing that the US is almost completely incapable of doing such a thing, if the US has a military presence there or wherever the US has a military presence, they have a policy of saying we neither confirm nor deny the fact that our ships and our planes and so on carry nuclear weapons. So, the North Koreans can say fairly confidently that look we will give up our nuclear weapons if you remove everything from the peninsula. Remember, it was the US in breach of the Armistice agreement of 1953 which first brought nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula. I think it was in 1956-1957, and the North Koreans have had hundreds of nuclear weapons pointed at them in the subsequent 60 years. That is something that I believe has made North Korea paranoid and defensive, understandably, in my opinion, over those decades.
Now they have a tool that, of course, no one in their right-mind thinks that North Korea is going to attack the US whatever they say or whatever videos they have about it. But they have a tool, with which there is some fear in the minds of their enemies, and, of course, they will draw the conclusion that the fact that Trump is making his overtures and has met with the Korean leader (which I can’t remember the last time that the US president met with the leader of North Korea, if at all) after they develop their nuclear weapons. At the same time the North Koreans look at what happened in Libya and Iraq in terms of unilateral disarmament processes and a subsequent invasion in those countries, and they draw their own conclusions.
So the North Koreans can competently say – let’s have a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, and they probably do want it, but you know this really presupposes that the US is going to do something other than it has always done. The US really considers itself the exceptional nation, this is another way of saying they consider themselves above the international law, and they are not used to normal bilateral relationships, are not used to saying – ok, you remove your weapons, we will remove ours, they want surrender. They got surrender from Libya, they got surrender from Iraq, they destroyed those countries, and the North Koreans are very well aware of that sort of history.