On February 9, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite will be the first Korean film to ever compete for an Academy Award. In a history-making sweep on January 13, it received six Oscar nominations, including one in the prestigious Best Picture category. Last Sunday, the Screen Actors Guild gave Parasite’s acting ensemble its top award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, selecting it above the legendary lineups for The Irishman, Bombshell, Jojo Rabbit, and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
For Bong, Parasite’s manic and innovative director, it was overdue recognition. His brilliant exposure of the deep class fissures in South Korea has struck an evocative chord in America—and demonstrates that foreign cinema can penetrate the American psyche. “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” he said after Parasite became the first Korean film to win a Golden Globe.
Parasite’s success in the US market is a little surprising, in part because most Americans and the US media show little interest in South Korea’s internal dynamics and complex domestic politics. Yet, despite some criticism, including in this magazine, of Bong’s satiric take on inequality, the film has taught many viewers that there’s an intriguing and even revolutionary side to South Korea outside of K-Pop and the DMZ.
Now, if only someone could make a film to correct the myths and assumptions that have driven American policy on the Korean Peninsula for decades and led to the latest breakdown in the Korea peace process that began with such promise in the winter of 2018.
Just as the South is often stereotyped as a model capitalist economy that would not exist without the beneficent presence of US troops, North Korea is universally viewed in Washington as a kind of Forever Enemy ruled by an irrational family dynasty that, for no apparent reason, hates the United States and belligerently threatens its friends and allies with nukes. Why they built these weapons is rarely addressed. And the roots of the conflict—the division of Korea in 1945 at the hands of the United States and a war that has never formally ended—are generally ignored.
For example: The Great Successor, the acclaimed biography of Kim Jong-un and the nuclear crisis by Washington Post reporter Anna Fifield, doesn’t even mention the fact that the United States first introduced nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula in the 1950s and, after withdrawing them in 1991, still maintains a powerful nuclear force in Northeast Asia. Some commentators dismiss Kim’s fears of the United States—which laid waste to his lands during the Korean War—as sheer fantasy.
“Like all dictators, Kim thrives on conflict with the outside world, especially the U.S., which the hermit kingdom’s state-run media likes to call the ‘savage enemy,’” The Dallas Morning News recently proclaimed, as if Kim’s weapons program was due simply to his need for an enemy. To buttress its case, it threw in a quote from B.R. Myers, whose 2010 book The Cleanest Race is, in my view, one of the most distorted books ever written about the North: “Without the U.S., without that enemy figure, [North Korea] really has no reason to exist.”
It’s as if the United States is an innocent bystander, just doing its darndest to maintain the peace against a belligerent foe that never lets up. That ahistorical approach also pertains to Pyongyang’s diplomacy with Trump. The consensus in Washington’s think tank world is that Kim’s reluctance to immediately get rid of all his nukes after his 2018 summit with Trump—and his testing last year of missiles that could potentially hit US bases in South Korea, Japan, and Guam during a war or to ward off an attack—are proof of his aggressive intent and his insincerity about seeking peace.
Even though no formal agreements have been reached on denuclearization or improving US–North Korea ties, Kim is just “playing” Trump by building up his military forces, the thinking goes. “All these advances, made during a period when the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington was supposedly never better, show that Kim is not interested in disarming,” Eric Brewer, a nuclear analyst and former national security official at the corporate- and contractor-funded Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote this month in a typical comment.
For the most part, the media seem to agree, and the American people follow. According to a poll conducted in November by The Economist, 56 percent of Americans consider North Korea to be an enemy of the United States, up from 51 percent in August.
Many Democratic leaders are in the distortion game too. “Look, we gave [Kim] everything he’s looking for,” Joe Biden declared at the last Democratic debate on January 14 in explaining why he would refuse to meet with the North Korean leader without preconditions. “The president showed up, met with him, gave him legitimacy, weakened the sanctions we have against him.”
Biden also claimed that he would somehow pressure China—which has lately been working with Russia to win support in the UN for a proposal to ease sanctions on North Korea—to force its ally to disarm. None of this was remotely true, but Biden’s claims weren’t challenged by any of his fellow candidates or the press.
Thankfully, there is a South Korean who can, as Bong Joon-ho and his ensemble did in Parasite, cut through the fog.
Moon Chung-in is a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University and a key adviser to President Moon Jae-in on national security and unification issues. An erudite, affable man well-known to US policy-makers, Moon travels frequently to Washington to unofficially convey South Korea’s views. He’s been to Pyongyang several times, most recently in September 2018, when he accompanied President Moon to his exuberant summit with Kim Jong-un, where a major deal was struck to lower military tensions.
There, “I saw the great possibility of peace,” Moon Chung-in said during his latest visit to DC in January. As a result of the North-South agreement in Pyongyang, “there’s been no clashes on the DMZ” since then. The “only violation” of the agreement came in early 2019, he said, when Kim Jong-un ordered a military exercise deploying short-range missiles. But for the North, he said, Trump’s refusal to budge on sanctions as a way to get a deal with Kim is at the heart of their dispute.
“For Pyongyang, Washington’s call for dialogue is nothing but a fig leaf to hide its intention to isolate, contain and strangle the North through sanctions and maximum pressure,” he wrote in The Korea Times. “A catastrophic turn does not appear imminent, but time seems to be on nobody’s side.” In public remarks, he also pointed out that the North is increasingly irked by the criticism of its intentions from US politicians. “Their concern is how American political stakeholders take advantage of North Korea for personal political gain.”
Here’s the problem, from the South Korean’s perspective: Since the first summit in Singapore, the Trump administration, despite pleadings from Seoul, has refused to lift sanctions on the North, even ones that could have helped President Moon carry out economic projects that he and Kim agreed to at their summit in Pyongyang. The lack of progress in the inter-Korean peace process, and South Korea’s own military buildup, have greatly angered Kim and the North Korean leadership, who in the fall of 2019 resumed their harsh public criticism of the South and the United States. The tensions were quite apparent on January 1, when Kim delivered a New Year’s statement and warned his nation to prepare for more hard times ahead.
“The present situation warning of long confrontation with the U.S. urgently requires us to make it a fait accompli that we have to live under the sanctions by the hostile forces in the future,” Kim said in remarks carried by KCNA, the state media outlet. Flanked by hundreds of cadre from his ruling Korean Workers’ Party, Kim talked mysteriously of a “new strategic weapon” he might deliver in the future—but left the door open for dialogue if the United States makes a fundamental change and stops treating North Korea like an enemy.
“If the US persists in its hostile policy towards the DPRK, there will never be the denuclearization on the Korean peninsula,” Kim warned, using a phrase that North Korea has been repeating for years, if not decades. His phrasing was repeated word-for-word this week in Geneva, when Ju Yong Chol, one of Kim’s diplomats at the UN, warned that if America’s “hostile policy” continued, the North would have “no reason to be unilaterally bound any longer by the commitment that the other party fails to honor.”
Chol added: “If the United States tries to enforce unilateral demands and persists in imposing sanctions, North Korea may be compelled to seek a new path,” which US officials and generals believe could include reviving the tests of long-range missiles that were suspended in 2017.
Unfortunately for the North, Dr. Moon said, many US policy-makers ignore the term “hostile policy,” claiming that Kim’s use of it is just “habitual.” In doing so, he pointed out, they miss a chance to understand how an actual deal might be cut with North Korea under the right conditions.
“‘Hostile policy’ is quite seriously meant,” he told a conference on January 6 organized by the Center for the National Interest, a conservative think tank in Washington. They believe the policy “threatens the security of North Korea and hampers the North Korean people’s right to exist.”
During the Q&A, I asked Moon to explain what he made of the term, and he provided the most specific explanation I have heard in years of covering the issue. “North Korea has been very clear,” he replied.
- First, they mean the “elimination of sanctions,” which to them is “the most important indicator of the hostile policy from the United States.”
- Second, political matters: “Normalize. Make [diplomatic] ties. Set up liaison offices, set up embassies with each other. That would be their most important indicator of ending the hostility.”
- Third, the military side: “A non-aggression treaty, signing a lasting peace treaty. Obviously suspending joint military exercise and training” with South Korea “and not deploying strategic weapons on the Korean Peninsula.”
- Finally, the North wants the United States to help make it “a normal country in the international economic system.” That means “not only lifting sanctions but allowing North Korea to be a member of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Asia Development Bank, and to let North Korea engage in normal trade and financial transactions and allow international investment into North Korea. It’s all very clear.”
Obviously, meeting those demands would require a major shift in policy on the part of the United States, with North Korea no longer seen as a permanent enemy. For the North, they are an essential part of any deal, just as long-term denuclearization is for the United States. That, Moon explained, should underscore why Washington can’t insist on “permanent and irreversible” denuclearization in North Korea—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s favorite phrase—before making any moves to reduce the sanctions. “That won’t work,” Moon said. “It’s why North Korea says you must ‘permanently and irreversibly’ withdraw your hostile policy” before it will come back to the table.
“They’re using your own words,” he said with a chuckle. “So there’s a complete parallel between Washington and Pyongyang.” And that’s why, in his view, both sides “need to be more flexible and realistic.”
In his address to the center, Moon indirectly confirmed reports in my last dispatch for The Nation that a US–South Korea military buildup over the past two years may have damaged prospects for a settlement by aggravating the North. Since Moon Jae-in took power in 2017, he explained, the president has emphasized “peace-keeping,” by which he means “suppressing the possibility of war through deterrence and strengthening the US military alliance.”
This policy emerged as a result of the tensions during the “nightmarish” year of 2017, when war appeared imminent, as well as from military decisions made by “previous governments” with the United States. As a result, South Korea has acquired advanced US weapons, including F-35 fighter jets and high-altitude Global Hawk drones, as I described in my Nation story. Meanwhile, in 2020, South Korea will spend 53 trillion won—about $46 billion—on its military, “slightly larger than Japan,” Moon said.
“Contrary to what conservatives in South Korea claim, we have been cooperating with the United States 100 percent.” But North Korea is “very angry about that,” he said. “We see the idea of peace-keeping as defensive,” but Pyongyang “doesn’t see it that way.” As a result, “peace-keeping has been sort of backfiring.”
But, while South Korea and the United States have worked in tandem to maintain their military readiness, the “peace-building” aspect of President Moon Jae-in’s policies has fallen by the wayside. When President Moon launched his initiative in 2018, he envisioned that the United States and the two Koreas could sign a declaration ending the Korean War and transform the 1953 armistice that ended the fighting into a “viable peace regime,” the professor said.
But the Trump administration has showed no interest in ending the war or signing a peace treaty, so that plan has gone unfulfilled. Meanwhile, the hard line on sanctions “has prevented South Korea’s engagement with North Korea,” said Moon Chung-in. Projects halted included plans to restore cross-border rail links, reopening the Gaesong Industrial Zone just north of the DMZ, and making it possible for South Koreans to visit Mount Kumgang in the North once again.
As a result, Moon said, “inter-Korean relations are completely frozen.” That, in turn, has created a serious political dilemma for South Korea in its cooperation with the United States. “If the US fails to reopen negotiations with North Korea” and settle its conflict with Kim, “it can’t make a breakthrough.” And because South Korea is a democracy, “President Moon’s supporters say South Korea must take an independent stand.” With some prescience, he added that President Moon “doesn’t want to be passive. He wants to be a mediator, a facilitator, and arbitrator, and a pacesetter of the Korean destiny.”
That process has apparently started. On January 14, President Moon declared in a press conference that he would henceforth stress cooperation with the North over the negotiations between the United States and Pyongyang. “Rather than only watching North Korea–US dialogue, we need to cooperate with North Korea on as many things as possible,” he told reporters at the Blue House. “Since inter-Korean relations are a Korean matter, we need to take more of the initiative in developing them.” As the progressive newspaper Hankyoreh noted, “the gist of these remarks is that inter-Korean relations should be the driver of the peace process on the Korean Peninsula.”
Moon’s speech sparked an extraordinary dispute when Harry Harris, the US ambassador, told foreign reporters in Seoul that South Korea must consult with Washington on any plans for cross-border engagement with the North “in order to avoid a misunderstanding later that could trigger sanctions.” In response, Lee Sang-min, a spokesperson for the Unification Ministry, reminded Harris that South Korea is a sovereign nation that “dictates its own policies” toward the North.
This week, the State Department backed Harris, saying his views “represent” those of President Trump. But the Moon government appears determined to press on, even within the confines of the US and UN sanctions. On Tuesday, Lee Soo-hyuck, the South Korean ambassador in Washington, said Seoul is especially hopeful that the cross-border railway project can be revived.
“I believe the project we should push for most urgently, and is doable, is connecting the railway network between South Korea and the North because it will take the longest [time] to complete,” he told reporters. “The overarching principle of the projects the government is pushing is that we should do the most we can within the framework of international sanctions.”
Despite the differences, Moon Chung-in says it’s imperative for the talks between the three parties—Seoul, Pyongyang, and Washington—to get back on track. “South Korea has heard North Korea’s grievances,” he said in Washington. “It’s time for North Korea to come back to the table and settle” and for both sides to come up with innovative solutions. In his view, that might involve the United States’ adopting a “nuclear arms control paradigm” toward the North, signing a peace treaty, and eventually negotiating a “phased US troop withdrawal” from the South as well as an international fund to support North Korea’s denuclearization. “We need creative diplomacy,” he said.
Perhaps the best antidote to the gloom is the sense of humor and humanity that both Dr. Moon and Parasite’s characters adopt toward their brethren to the north.
There’s a hilarious scene in Bong’s film when one of his characters mimics the rapturous voice of Ri Chun-hee, North Korea’s famous anchorwoman, who is often chosen to deliver the supreme leader’s most momentous announcements to his people. But this gentle ribbing shouldn’t necessarily be seen as criticizing the North, Bong said in an interview last year. “There are a lot of comics in South Korea who make sketches on [North Korean] topics and it’s something that’s very common in South Korea,” he said.
In other words, laughing about their situation is one way Koreans cope with the stress of division and war. But perhaps the deeper meaning is about survival in a city divided along class lines and a country split into rich South and poor North. “I think the [Parasite] story is about coexistence and how we can all live together,” Song Kang-ho, the beloved character actor who plays the family patriarch, said in receiving the cast’s SAG award last Sunday. A little laughter—and a lot of truth—about America’s dark fears of the North might go a long way in Washington too.