In his recent Nation report from the Singapore summit, the redoubtable Tim Shorrock observed, “Even as the first images flashed across the world of Trump and Kim shaking hands against the unusual background of US and DPRK flags flapping together, social media and op-ed sections of media sites were filled with denunciations of Trump. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate led the attack.”
And the attitude of leading Democrats, by turns myopic and petulant, toward not only the Kim–Trump tête-à-tête, but seemingly any progress toward peace on the Korean peninsula, was on vivid display on Capitol Hill during Thursday’s confirmation hearing of retired US Navy admiral Harry B. Harris to be Trump’s ambassador to South Korea.
At Thursday morning’s hearing, the theme that Trump recklessly gave away the store in Singapore quickly emerged.
During her introduction of the nominee, Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono did all but charge Trump with a form of appeasement. According to Hirono, Trump’s sin was to “question the long-term commitment of our troop presence in South Korea and accept the North Korean rationale on ending joint military exercise that have increased regional safety and cooperation.”
Ranking member Bob Menendez, who was one of seven senate Democrats who signed a letter to the president that, in effect, sought to kill the summit before it even began, charged that “our allies and adversaries are seriously questioning the U.S. commitment to Asia under the Trump Administration.”
Menendez, perhaps as ill-informed a member as has ever sat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, inveighed against the Singapore summit, charging that Trump “blind-sided everyone, including South Korea, when he carelessly conceded to Kim Jong Un this week something North Korean has long wanted—the cessation of US-South Korean joint military exercises. In exchange for, well, apparently nothing.”
Menendez pressed Harris on the issue of military exercises, which he clearly wishes would continue, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the provocative nature of such drills. But Harris politely pushed back, noting that “we are in a dramatically different place” from where we were before the summit. “I believe,” said the former commander of the US Pacific Command, “that we should give exercises, major exercises, a pause to see if Kim Jong Un in fact is serious about his part of the negotiations.”
During his questioning of Harris, Delaware Democrat Chris Coons wondered whether talks with North Korea might serve to destabilize the Korean Peninsula, while Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey voiced his opinion that “Kim is still working from the Kim family playbook…pocketing the reward of negations but delaying the concessions.” Perhaps, but Markey ignores the fact that the agreement reached under the Clinton administration in 1994 was torn up by George W. Bush. This is also the second time in roughly two months that Kim has pledged to work toward denuclearization, the first being April 27’s “Panmunjom Declaration” which he signed with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
All in all, the Democrats weren’t (and aren’t) raising substantive objections, merely regurgitating the talking points laid out by Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer even before the ink on the Singapore agreement was dry. Said Schumer from the Senate floor, “What the US has gained is vague and unverifiable at best. What North Korea has gained however is tangible and lasting…. We’ve legitimized a brutal dictator who’s starved his own people.”
Still more alarming, on June 14, Democratic Senators Chris Murphy and Tammy Duckworth introduced an amendment to the forthcoming National Defense Authorization Act that would essentially move the decision to withdraw American troops from South Korea from the president’s desk (where it belongs) to the office of the secretary of defense.
Duckworth tweeted: “U.S. troops are not bargaining chips to be offered up in an off-handed manner. The Kim regime is as dangerous today as they were 6 months ago & they have done nothing to demonstrate that the threat they pose has lessened.”
fBut the senators from Illinois and Connecticut would seem to have the sequencing backward, and Trump, for once, may have it right: A detailed agreement that seeks to achieve the complete, verifiable irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula could only follow, not precede, a pledge by the United States to halt the joint military exercises with South Korea that have served as the rationale behind the North Korean nuclear program.
Nevertheless, there have been some progressive anti-war Democrats who have been encouraging of Trump’s parley with Kim. Fifteen House members led by California’s Ro Khanna sent a letter to the president a day before the summit that took Trump to task for his reckless abandonment of the Iranian nuclear accord but offered “support” for the “potentially historic progress made through diplomacy.”
Khanna, and his co-signatories, including Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard, Washington’s Pramila Jayapal, and California’s Barbara Lee, should be applauded for their unwillingness, like so many of the senators mentioned above, to jeopardize US and South Korean security interests for the sake of partisan advantage.