The Really Serious People — you know, the politicians and pundits who have been wrong on every call on foreign policy in recent memory — think that talking to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un would be foolish because it would “legitimate” him and his brutal regime. This war caucus is ably represented by retired Rear Adm. John Kirby, formerly the mouthpiece for the Obama administration’s Pentagon and State Department and now a CNN contributor.
But I call that the Really Stupid Argument against seeking a peaceful resolution of this unnecessary standoff and finally bringing an end to the 67-year American war against Korea.
How many dictators have U.S. presidents “legitimated” through coups, talks, alliances, military assistance, and more? Too many to count, that’s how many. Recall the pictures of Richard Nixon shaking hands with Mao Zedong, ending the Cold War with China. Was that a bad thing? Of course, a libertarian noninterventionist can level many criticisms at how detente was carried out, but we have to take what we can get — especially when the alternative is belligerence and possibly war. Many Chinese are far wealthier than before, and Americans have benefited from the trade. Most important, the chance of war has been reduced.
We need not embrace Donald Trump’s empty offer to talk to Kim — what the hell does he mean by “under the right circumstances”? — to see the nonsense of those who say that in principle talking would be a mistake.
What would be better: perpetual standoff, more futile sanctions, an unprovoked U.S. conventional or nuclear first strike? By process of elimination, talking is the only thing that makes any sense. But it would need to be real talk, in which Kim, who is not suicidal, was sincerely offered an end to the U.S. threat.
How would a meeting with the Trump administration legitimate Kim anyway? Considering that the U.S. government is the only government ever to use nuclear weapons — considering that it threatened to use nuclear weapons during the Korean War — considering that it has repeatedly used chemical (napalm, Agent Orange, depleted uranium, white phosphorus) and biological weapons against foreign populations, including Korea during the war (see this and follow the links) — it’s hard to see how sitting down with Trump would do anything but de-escalate the confrontation with North Korea once and for all. That would be good for everyone except the civilian and military bureaucrats who run the American Empire and the large part of the U.S. economy that sells it products and services. War, on the other hand, would kill and maim lots of Koreans, North and South, and hapless American military personnel at the DMZ, not to mention perhaps Chinese and Japanese.
Is that price worth the effort to deprive Kim of “legitimacy”? (Madeleine Albright, don’t answer that.)
If anything really legitimates Kim, it’s the U.S. government’s unending economic war against the North Koreans. Rulers don’t suffer under sanctions. Yet economic warfare tends to prompt the targeted people to rally round their government for protection. It also gives their government a ready-made excuse for their hardship. That’s a recipe for legitimacy. If the people are ever to throw out Kim’s atrocious regime, it’ll happen when trade with the West shows them what they are missing. Ideas always accompany trade in goods, and rising expectations, not increasing misery, plant the seeds of change. A policy of isolation is a policy of the status quo.
As we’ve come to expect, Trump’s “offer” gives not even a glimmer of hope that a proper resolution of this matter could be in the offing. In Trump’s head “under the right circumstances” probably means no more than this: if Kim first kowtows to every U.S. demand without getting anything in return, Trump would talk. But in that case, what’s to talk about?
We’re in this mess because for 64 years — except for a half-hearted attempt at reconciliation by the Clinton administration, which quickly reneged — the U.S. government has pursued policies hostile to the cause of peace on the Korean peninsula. The three-generation North Korean regime’s repeated calls for a treaty to end the war and for a nonaggression pact that includes a halt to threatening annual war exercises have fallen on deaf American ears. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has repeatedly demonstrated that nukes are the only way to deter invasion and regime change. (See Iraq and Libya.) Thus the U.S. demand for capitulation before talks begin — such as the denuclearization of the peninsula — is a nonstarter. The war party knows this and is willing to accept the consequences. What the heck? It won’t suffer. On the contrary, it will prosper. War is the health of the state.
After all these years, it’s tempting to think that America’s ruling class is so stupid that it is incapable of learning from experience. But that is the wrong inference. The war party knows well what its policies have wrought. It persists in what looks like an insane policy because it benefits from that policy. The Empire is a perpetual motion machine. Manufacturing crises is what it does — because crises are good for it.
My analysis is not strictly economic. We must also understand that America’s rulers have what we could call a “chosen people” complex — it’s usually known as “American exceptionalism.” President George H. W. Bush expressed this attitude well when in 1990 he ordered Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein to remove his invasion force from Kuwait: “What we say goes.” The subtext was that God or history has anointed America — meaning its rulers — to lead the world to whatever those rulers deem to be desirable. (To be sure, those ends also happen to be profitable for certain interests.)
What we peace-mongers must do, then, is make belligerent policies bad rather than good for the war party. That will require changing enough people’s minds so that they won’t put up with such destructive policies any longer.
Not that this will be easy. It will require education, polemics, satire, movies, novels, even editorial cartoons. It will require persistence because the war party is smart. It has reduced the most obvious costs of empire. We have no draft, though we still have a Selective Service System and compulsory registration. Missiles can safely be launched from drones and distant ships. For Americans, war can be largely, though not entirely, bloodless. Those who see combat up close are lauded as heroes at airports, on game shows, and at sporting events. The maimed survivors are out of sight.
So those of us who oppose the idiotic U.S. policy have work to do. We can always use more help.