South Koreans are learning the hard truths expressed in the protest music of Phil Ochs from the darkest days of the Cold War. “When it comes to times like Korea, there’s no one more red, white, and blue” than the American liberal, he sang in one of his most biting verses.
Decades later, with the two Koreas on the brink of ending a war that ripped their country apart and triggered the massive US military intervention of 1950, the liberals and Democrats who earned Ochs’s derision may be undermining the best chance for peace on the peninsula in a generation.
As US diplomats prepare for the second summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un next week in Hanoi, senior Democrats in the House and Senate, joined by a few Republicans, have been sounding alarm bells, warning that South Korean President Moon Jae-in is moving too fast in reconciling with North Korea by seeking a premature lifting of sanctions on the nuclear-armed state.
They are also expressing strong reservations about the US and South Korean negotiations with Kim and warning Trump not to budge on his “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign until Kim has completely dismantled North Korea’s nuclear-weapons and missile program. Kim temporarily halted the program nearly 500 days ago by suspending all testing of his “nuclear force.”
The congressional actions have been fueled by a steady stream of pessimistic and often misleading studies from Washington think tanks, eagerly embraced by US media hostile to the peace process, alleging that Kim is “playing” Trump and that both Moon and Trump may stop short of demanding North Korea’s immediate denuclearization by embracing a more incremental approach.
In recent days, word has been circulating in Washington that Trump’s team in Hanoi, led by State Department special envoy Stephen Biegun, may loosen some US sanctions in return for North Korea’s closing down of its huge nuclear complex at Yongbyon, which South Korea’s Hankyoreh newspaper describes as “the center and symbol of North Korea’s nuclear development program.”
Other reports claim that the two countries may set up liaison offices in their respective capitals as the bilateral talks move forward. Those attempts at a compromise, in turn, have set up an internecine battle inside the Trump administration, with hard-liners like John Bolton, who is visiting South Korea this weekend, trying to head off Biegun’s diplomacy.
But Trump is sticking to his guns. “I’m in no particular rush” as long as the North’s test suspension remains in place, Trump told reporters at the White House on February 19. That same day, President Moon told Trump in a 35-minute phone call that South Korea was ready to use economic incentives, including connecting inter-Korean roads and railroads and other projects, to “reduce the burden” on the United States in forging an agreement with North Korea. “Seoul is ready to reboot inter-Korean exchanges with an early resumption of joint economic projects,” a presidential official at the Blue House told reporters.
Top Democrats, however, oppose such moves. Last week, Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, joined Republican Ted Cruz in sending a strongly worded letter to Trump that directly attacked President Moon’s push for closer economic ties with North Korea. They urged the White House to rein in the US ally by committing “the full weight of the U.S. government to ensuring the integrity of the sanctions regime.”
Senator Menendez is also the author of a resolution, now under consideration in the Senate and House, promoting the trilateral military alliance between the United States, Japan, and South Korea, which is highly unpopular among Koreans. It comes as Tokyo and Seoul are locked in a bitter dispute over Japan’s use of “comfort women” as sex slaves during World War II and its refusal to provide restitution to thousands of Koreans forced to labor in Japanese mines and factories during that time. The resolution, which was introduced in the House by Democratic Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is widely seen in Seoul as a way to pressure President Moon to back off and settle the dispute.
The most dramatic moment of congressional impatience with South Korea came last week, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with a high-level delegation of South Korean lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition parties.
The group, which was led by Representative Moon Hee-sang, the speaker of South Korea’s National Assembly, came to Washington to seek support for the inter-Korean peace process started by President Moon during the “Olympic Truce” of January 2018. According to Korean reporters who were briefed on the meeting, the session was uncomfortable from the start and had to be extended “as the talks grew intense.”
Pelosi, citing her own visit to Pyongyang in 1997, reportedly told her visitors not to trust the North and asserted (apparently with prodding from Representative Na Kyung-won, the floor leader of the right-wing opposition Liberty Korea Party) that North Korea’s “real goal isn’t its own denuclearization but South Korea’s demilitarization.” At one point, Pelosi insisted that last June’s summit in Singapore—the first-ever meeting between a US president and a North Korean leader—was “nothing but show.”
The implication was that the South Koreans, who have had extensive discussions on economic, political, and military issues with their Northern counterparts over the past year, are naive and don’t understand the threat to their own country. Representative Moon, in an interview with Fox 11 in Los Angeles, said he responded to Pelosi that the second summit in Hanoi “is of great importance to the Korean people and it will determine the fate of our country. That’s how important it is.”
The US congressional pressure on South Korea to end its dispute with Japan also contributed to the tension. The issue of Japan’s wartime crimes is particularly sensitive for Representative Moon, who recently suggested that the Japanese emperor apologize to his country for its war crimes against Koreans. Later, he called Japan a “brazen thief” for demanding that he retract his comments.
After hearing Pelosi express her concern about the dispute between South Korea and Japan, Speaker Moon told Korean reporters that the House speaker was essentially lobbying for Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party government in Tokyo. “I think Japan told her to have a word with [us] before the meeting, or in other words, scold us,” he said, according to the Joongang Daily. Pelosi’s press office did not return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment and clarification.
Still, Pelosi’s comments rattled many Koreans, who are hoping for a successful summit so they can proceed with their plans to eliminate tensions with the North. “Reconciliation and peace between North and South Korea is a gravely historic matter that should be for the Korean people to decide,” Simone Chun, a Korean scholar and activist who has spoken to congressional staffers about the peace process, told The Nation. “It cannot be allowed to be reduced to a bargaining chip in the struggle for one-upmanship between Republicans and Democrats.”
Chun was also critical of Representative Na of the Korean opposition party for raising fears during her visit to Washington about a North Korean nuclear attack and opposing an end-of-war declaration at the upcoming summit. “What Pelosi did was to legitimize the ultra-right-wing views expressed by Na,” she said.
Hwang Joon-bum, the Washington correspondent for Hankyoreh, South Korea’s largest progressive daily, wrote an op-ed about the House speaker’s remarks. “Pelosi is just one person who reflects the dominant viewpoint in the American political establishment, the mainstream media and think tanks,” he said. “There was never any chance” that the lawmakers’ tour “would reverse the deep-rooted distrust of North Korea and the antipathy to Trump both inside and outside of the US political establishment.”
The US critics, he added, “aren’t impressed by North Korea’s suspension of nuclear and missile testing since Nov. 2017, its willingness to demolish its Yongbyon nuclear facility and [Kim Jong-un’s] focus on an economic line.”
Daniel Jasper, the public-education-and-advocacy coordinator for Asia of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), said in an interview that he hoped Democrats would start seeing the Trump-Kim talks through Korean eyes.
“We are urging Democratic leadership to see the peace process for what it is—a Korean-led effort to end a 70-year-old war,” Jasper told The Nation. “Changing from the view that the current situation is a nuclear standoff to the view that this situation is the result of an un-ended war is essential to understanding what types of reciprocal actions are pragmatic and necessary, as well as why diplomacy is needed in the first place. We remain hopeful that the Democrats will rise above partisanship and political calculations to support the overall goal of peace.” AFSC, which established its first operations in North Korea in 1980, works with four cooperative farms in the country to raise productivity and implement sustainable agricultural practices, Jasper said.
But the Menendez letter showed little appreciation for South Korea’s efforts to help the North improve its economy. Menendez and Cruz listed a series of South Korean actions they consider troublesome, including moves by Korean banks to “pursue investments and operations” in the North and the participation of “multiple business executives” in President Moon’s summit in Pyongyang last September to discuss reopening the Kaesong Industrial Zone just north of the DMZ and tours of Mount Kumgang, a tourist site beloved by South Koreans.
They also complained about President Moon’s recent calls to lift sanctions on the North “as soon as possible” and plans by both Koreas to break ground on a new cross-border rail project “within this year.” They added that North Korea’s “opacity” and its “well-documented efforts of evading sanctions” makes it impossible to ensure “that economic engagement with the North—regardless of intent to contribute to positive diplomatic progress on denuclearization—would not violate U.N. Security Council resolutions or be used for illicit activities prohibited by U.S. sanctions.”
Meanwhile, in another move that could constrain both South Korea and the United States in their negotiations with the North, Representative Tom Malinowski, a newly elected Democratic congressman from New Jersey, joined Republican Representative Mike Gallagher in introducing a bill that would restrict the US government and the Pentagon from reducing US troops in South Korea from their current level of about 28,000 to 22,000 or less unless the secretary of defense could assure Congress it would not have an “adverse” impact on US security.
The bill, H.R. 889, states that a “withdrawal or significant reduction” of US forces, which could happen eventually if a peace deal is reached, “may risk upsetting the military balance” in the Asia region. It also uses language similar to the Menendez letter concerning the US alliance with Japan, saying that the trilateral ties between the United States, Japan, and South Korea “form the bedrock of regional stability.”
Malinowski, a former director of Human Rights Watch, was the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor during the Obama administration. In 2017, he wrote an article for Politico titled “How to Take Down Kim Jong Un” that essentially called for a campaign that would “lead to the end” of the North Korean regime “and its reason to exist as a country.”
The Democratic Party’s current approach was established last June, one week before the Singapore summit, in a letter to Trump from Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and signed by Senators Menendez, Dick Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, Sherrod Brown, Mark Warner, and Patrick Leahy. It laid out a series of demands, including North Korea’s “dismantlement and removal” of its chemical and biological weapons, which are not currently part of the talks, and urged the White House to “maintain a tough approach to China” throughout the peace process. The Schumer letter also rejected any incremental steps by the US government in its dealings with Kim.
“Any deal that explicitly or implicitly gives North Korea sanctions relief for anything other than the verifiable performance of its obligations to dismantle its nuclear and missile arsenal is a bad deal,” the Democratic senators declared.
Chun, the scholar-activist, said in a recent e-mail to peace activists that the Schumer letter “completely overlooked the recent progress toward peace evinced by the inter-Korean summit and the Panmunjom Declaration and discounted the overwhelming support for the peace process by Koreans. It also offers no alternative vision for peace on the Korean Peninsula and considers Korean interests only insofar as they serve the narrow political agenda of the Democratic Party.”
After the Schumer letter went out, according to activists who spend time on Capitol Hill, Representative Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders told their caucus “not to speak supportively” of the Singapore summit, which happened to coincide with a week of advocacy on Korea by peace groups. “Many of our folks lobbying on the Hill were stunned at how hostile many Dems were,” one activist told The Nation.
But now, with the Trump-Kim negotiations in full swing, a few Democrats are ready to take a new approach. A group of lawmakers from the Congressional Progressive Caucus plan to announce an action next week to express support for the Korea peace process and call on the United States to finally end the Korean War through a peace agreement. That would be most welcome, said Kevin Martin, president of Peace Action and national coordinator of the Korea Peace Network.
“Democrats should support diplomacy, and remember the most important president in this process is Moon Jae-in, not Donald Trump,” Martin said. “Moon’s persistent leadership toward reconciliation and diplomacy with North Korea represents the fervent desire of the Korean and Korean-American people for peace. Members of Congress from both parties should understand that and support it, skepticism about Trump and Kim notwithstanding.”