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.
What would productive American solidarity with the inter-Korean process look like? How might a progressive government reformulate US policy toward North Korea? In what follows, I outline 3 basic principles for such a revision, briefly sketch their implications and rationale, and gesture toward the details of implementation. This is not intended to be a comprehensive policy paper, but rather a way of widening the discussion about a major issue facing congressional Democrats today and one that will be need to be tackled by any future progressive president.
1. Be realistic about denuclearization
Nearly all experts agree that, at least in the near-term, there is no way North Korea is going to give up its entire nuclear weapons program. Yet the administration’s maximalist rhetoric and the now infamous “Schumer letter” sent from Senate Democrats to Trump show that this goal still holds a powerful sway in government. A left foreign policy should reject this all-or-nothing gambit and acknowledge that, for now, an arms control approach to negotiations is likely to be more fruitful. This does not mean jettisoning the long-term goal of a denuclearized Korean peninsula – or, for that matter, a denuclearized world. It merely recognizes that since security concerns are at the heart of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, asking the North to unilaterally give them up after 70 years of animosity is frankly laughable.
The US should instead pursue a step-by-step process that includes some sanctions relief in exchange for tangible actions by the Kim regime. Freezing the nuclear program in place, rather than total denuclearization, should be the initial goal of negotiations. The US can demonstrate its seriousness by issuing targeted sanctions waivers for inter-Korean projects up front, creating a degree of trust that would positively feedback into the nuclear talks. A verifiable agreement that capped the North’s programs and stopped production of fissile material would be a huge win for international security and could serve as a basis for further reductions as relations between the US and North Korea improve. A savvy presidential candidate would start talking about this attainable goal now, signaling their willingness to keep the diplomatic window open.
A left foreign policy would recognize, though, that if nuclear negotiations are to move beyond mere arms control, then the US military posture in Northeast Asia will have to be altered. This does not necessarily mean the withdrawal of all troops from the peninsula, but it could mean far fewer numbers, the ending of certain exercises, the removal of non-nuclear “strategic assets,” a generally de-escalatory pose, and possibly the closure of military facilities — all of which would have to be coordinated with South Korea. The thorniest issue here is South Korea’s position under the US nuclear umbrella. The North recently reiterated its longstanding policy that full denuclearization would require the removal of US nuclear assets in the region. While this stance might be negotiable in practice, it is fair to assume that if the South remained under the US umbrella after North Korea eliminated its last nuclear weapon, the North would likely ask for steep trade-offs: a full withdrawal of conventional US forces, for instance. If for some reason the South was willing to forgo the umbrella, however, the North might be willing to accept a conventional US military presence below the demilitarized zone. Much of this highly speculative dilemma depends less on the North than on the South, which polling shows is highly supportive of the military alliance with the US. There is some indication, however, that this approval is more ambiguous and contingent than it seems on the surface. In a dramatically changed security environment, South Koreans may begin to feel differently about the US presence.
2. End the war, normalize relations
With the exception of a brief glimmer of engagement in the Clinton era, which was arguably the last great chance for improving bilateral relations, the United States’ posture toward North Korea has been uniformly hostile for 70 years. This stance, the latest iteration of which is the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, has been an absolute failure even on its own terms. It has not brought democracy to North Korea or pressured the government to offer its citizens some modicum of human rights. It has not changed North Korean behavior on the world stage and certainly has not prevented the Kim regime from acquiring nuclear weapons. The US stance has not even prevented further conflict, as demonstrated by the “second Korean War” of the 1960s, the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010, and numerous other outbreaks of violence on the peninsula. In South Korea, the US’ antagonistic pose also helped justify the repressions of Park Chung-hee and other anticommunist strongmen, keeping democracy at bay below the demilitarized zone for much of the Cold War.
A left foreign policy toward North Korea would acknowledge what is obvious: the Cold War is over, pressure and antagonism has failed, and it is time to follow the lead of the Moon administration in trying something different. The US must declare its willingness to forge a new relationship with the North and, unlike the Trump administration, actually make good on it. The US should seek the immediate opening of liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang – not only as both a first step toward restoring diplomatic relations, but as a practical matter to enable the two countries to talk in a regular fashion about the nuclear issue and other pressing matters. A left administration should end the travel ban and reverse the Trump administration’s unconscionable policy (now apparently under review) of preventing humanitarian NGOs from operating in the country. In fact, a left government must encourage more humanitarian work in North Korea by easing the bureaucratic restrictions of the Office of Foreign Assets Control – which under Trump has been refusing licenses for legitimate aid organizations. Greater coordination with the Chinese government–whose customs officials are notoriously skittish about sanctions–will help ensure humanitarian deliveries make their way to North Korea in a timely and hassle-free fashion.
On the broader peace and security front, a left government should do what the Trump administration has promised yet failed to do: issue a public declaration that the Korean War is now over. This declaration would be closely followed by a meeting between American, South Korean, North Korean, and Chinese officials to jumpstart preliminary discussions about a peace treaty. The US government should also reach out to international activist organizations already working the issue–such as Women Cross DMZ–to share information, coordinate efforts and construct a shared path forward. Contrary to the usual view, a peace treaty must not be instrumentalized as a form of US leverage over the North. Instead, it should be regarded as a form of reparative diplomacy capable of accelerating a reconciliation process that is decades overdue. The nuclear weapons issue will of course be a sticking point, but peace and disarmament on the peninsula have always been inextricably linked. The North’s nuclear weapons program is not an excuse to perpetually defer resolving one of the earliest–and last–conflicts of the Cold War.
Ultimately, the US must renounce the possibility of regime change and instead pursue what Moon Chung-in calls a “changed regime” – a North Korea that treats its citizens better, develops a functional and just economy, and participates in world affairs as a relatively normal actor. History shows that the North will never alter its behavior while indefinitely besieged, so the US should end its self-defeating obsession with tightening the screws. Instead of exploiting the human rights issue to maintain a hawkish stance (which will do nothing for the vulnerable), the US should relentlessly engage with the regime on the subject, tying it to Kim Jong Un’s quest for international legitimacy and global capital. Even incremental improvements will mean a great deal to the 26 million ordinary North Koreans who live under the Kim regime.
3. Promote economic integration – with justice
The United States should encourage the Moon administration’s far-reaching plans for rail and road connectivity on the peninsula, energy cooperation, and other inter-Korean projects. The Kim regime clearly desires greater access to global markets, a goal the US could help facilitate as part of an agreement limiting the North’s nuclear weapons program. But with conservatives dead-set on sanctions and “pressure,” left-wing voices are frequently in the odd position of publicly advocating for greater economic integration – which as envisioned by both Koreas would of course mean the expansion of capitalism in the North. It is becoming increasingly common for dovish Korea watchers to cite the North’s rare earth mineral reserves or vast supply of cheap labor as a reason for investors to support engagement. A left foreign policy should reject this false dichotomy in which critics of capitalism situationally adopt free market boosterism as a tool to counter the hawkish status quo.
The danger of this opportunism is obvious. Economic liberalization may have its benefits for North Korea, but there is also serious risk of a feeding frenzy in which state property (or enterprises under ambiguous control) are rapidly privatized, land is sold off to extractive industries, and the dictatorial Kim government serves as state strikebreaker for international capital, keeping labor disciplined and regulation lax. The labor concerns about Moon’s inter-Korean development projects–such as the possibility of mass impressment, already common in the North–are legitimate and should not be ignored. The US can use its substantial power to facilitate the North’s greater integration into the world economy but should resist a laissez faire approach that sees opening the floodgates of capital investment as an objective good.
Instead, a left foreign policy should advocate for traditionally left goals in the nominally socialist North. Relaxation of sanctions and the normalization of trade should be contingent on the North abiding by the socialist principles it claims to hold. The US could, for instance, ensure that a percentage of new enterprises are run as worker cooperatives – and could send representatives from successful collective ventures to train North Korean workers in democratized production. The US and South Korea can also jointly push for greater labor rights in the North and find creative ways to encourage worker organizing as part of aid and development projects. Again, this form of pressure would not shy away from the notion of socialism but embrace it, much like the young labor activists in China who are citing Marx and Mao to challenge the government’s disregard for workers’ rights. On environmental matters, the US should work with the Koreas to protect the demilitarized zone from destructive development, preferably by shepherding its transition into a protected wildlife refuge. And while banning extractive ventures may be unrealistic, the US and South Korea can use their leverage to ensure these projects are held to environmentally-sound standards. Solar power–already ubiquitous in the North due to the electrical grid’s unreliability–could also be scaled up through US incentives to counterbalance gas and coal projects. Incentivizing renewables such as hydroelectric and wind power, both mentioned in Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech, would be beneficial as well.
The policy sketch above no doubt leaves many issues unaddressed. But hopefully it makes the case that there is a left foreign policy to be articulated with regard to North Korea, one distinct from both liberal and conservative iterations of the hawkish status quo. North Korea’s response to such a policy, of course, remains a wild card – but the Moon government has shown that engagement can bear fruit if one sets aside the conventional wisdom and adopts a new approach without apology or fear. Ignorance, ideology, and a lack of political courage have kept US policy toward North Korea absurdly delimited for the past 70 years. A progressive administration should take the opportunity to revise this failed policy – and with it, bring our own hermit kingdom into the 21st century.
John Carl Baker is a writer and analyst focused on nuclear weapons issues. Follow him on Twitter: @johncarlbaker.