Bruce Cumings has written many books, including The Korean War: A History and North Korea: Another Country. He writes for The Guardian, The London Review of Books and The Nation and he teaches at the University of Chicago. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: We know what Donald Trump wants out of the Korean talks in Singapore: he wants the Nobel Peace Prize—so he’s pretty motivated to get some kind of deal. According to some commentators—for example Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times—Trump made a huge concession, the suspension of military exercises with South Korea, on top of the broader concession of the summit meeting itself, unprecedented in the last 75 years, and the legitimacy the summit gives to Kim. In exchange for these concessions, Trump seems to have won astonishingly little, Kristof argues: in their joint statement, Kim merely re-affirmed the same commitment to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula that North Korea has made repeatedly since 1992. I wonder if you agree with that reading of the joint statement.
Bruce Cumings: No, I don’t agree with it. The U.S. has refused to talk to North Korean leaders since 1945; more specifically, since February 1946, when Kim Il-sung came to effective power as the head of an interim people’s committee, which the American occupation commander in the South refused to recognize. We have refused to deal with North Korea ever since. The point of this first meeting between Trump and Kim was to begin a process in which North Korea would no longer be a nuclear weapons state. As for canceling the military exercises, the U.S. did that back in 1994. Bill Clinton did that as a concession to the North. South Korea’s one of the only countries in the world where the U.S. could get away with gigantic military exercises with tens of thousands of troops, both Korean and American. The Pentagon probably won’t be too happy about not doing do these games, but it’s a small concession.
JW: Trump called the war games “provocative.” What did you think of that?
BC: No president has ever said that before, but he’s right. In his own madness, he brings innocent eyes to the Korean situation. He doesn’t know much about it, he doesn’t know the history, but in the war games, the Americans game out how to decapitate the North Korean regime—for example, how to overthrow it by sending the Marines into the Port of Wonsan and marching across the peninsula to take down the government. They also have simulated nuclear drills. President Obama during one of these games sent B-52s to drop dummy nuclear weapons on South Korean islands. These are very threatening to North Korea, they always have been, but I’ve never heard a president say they’re provocative. Trump’s utter lack of experience and his lack of any ties to the Washington foreign policy establishment give him a certain freedom to do something like this.