By John Carl Baker
In 2018, the Korean reconciliation process resulted in summits at Panmunjom and Pyongyang, numerous sports and cultural exchanges, the reunion of separated families, a veritable non-aggression agreement between North and South, and yes, an unprecedented meeting between Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump. The left has long advocated for greater engagement with North Korea, but President Trump’s prominent role in this opening has many viewing a promising opportunity with dismissiveness and suspicion. Some see it as yet another example of our own aspiring dictator cozying up to established autocrats and other authoritarians abroad. Others regard the process as a substanceless sham to prop up Trump’s poll numbers or distract from the dizzying number of administration scandals at home. Over the past year, Congressional Democrats have often promoted these narratives while offering only tepid support for diplomacy.
These criticisms are not unfounded. Trump is a racist demagogue presiding over an administration of mustache-twirling plutocrats who have made their admiration for repressive regimes quite clear. Trump’s glowing descriptions of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un are in incredibly poor taste and can reasonably be cited as further evidence of his own contempt for human rights and democracy. And the administration undoubtedly exploits diplomacy with North Korea–a rare bright spot in a deeply unpopular and failing presidency–to make it seem like it’s actually accomplishing something.
Yet viewing this historic moment solely through the lens of Trump obscures the broader picture. Together the Koreas have forged an opportunity not only for peace but for addressing the North’s nuclear weapons program, a longstanding US goal. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s vision of a simultaneous dual-track process is now underway, with the US leading on nuclear negotiations and the Koreas handling peninsular concerns. Trump may be at the helm of the former by necessity, but he should not be allowed to take center stage in a drama in which he is at best a supporting character. Foregrounding Trump negates the agency of those on both sides of the demilitarized zone – and risks spurning left solidarity with the Moon administration in favor of scoring minor partisan points.