The Trump administration’s recent mixed messages could well be causing a global outbreak of whiplash. On one day the Secretary of State takes to the airwaves and calls for bringing “Pyongyang to the negotiating table to begin a dialogue,” on another day the Secretary of Defense threatens a “massive military response” that could include the “total annihilation” of North Korea, on the very next day the U.N. ambassador accuses North Korea of “begging for war.”
Mixing a war of words with intermittent calls for diplomacy makes it harder to jump-start serious negotiations. Unfortunately, the administration appears united is in its one-sided view of the history of the conflict, which is equally harmful to diplomatic progress.
President Trump recently tweeted a brief history lesson. “The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!” Previously, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered his own version of this history at a press conference:
This 20 years of talking has brought us to the point we are today... America has provided $1.3 billion in assistance to North Korea since 1995. In return, North Korea has detonated nuclear weapons, and dramatically increased its launches of ballistic missiles.
Why An Unbiased History Matters
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam war, spent the last years of his life apologizing for the bloodshed while analyzing what went wrong. He would say of those we are in conflict with, “We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes.” Understanding this, President Obama slipped a critical line into his early Cairo speech: “In the middle of the cold war, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.”
Obama’s nod to Iranian concerns helped pave the way for negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear agreement. Malcolm Byrne, of the National Security Archive, pointed out how the acknowledgement of the Iranian coup “bodes well for our ability to get a less distorted version of history about other events in the future.”
A True History of the Korean Conflict: Partition and the Korean War
We need an un-biased history not to defend or excuse the brutality of the Kim regime, of course, but to ensure we recognize the most realistic diplomatic opportunities. So, what would a “less distorted version of history” of the U.S.-North Korea relationship look like? That history begins not with the last twenty-five years of on and off talks but seventy-two years ago with the division of Korea and the Korean War.
Few Americans remember the massive scale of destruction—and the massive trauma—caused by the Korean war. The U.S. carpet bombing during the war was merciless; well over one million of North Koreans perished. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of Strategic Air Command at the time, shared this blunt assessment: “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — 20 percent of the population.”
The North Korean regime’s response to Trump’s “fire and fury” comments sought to tap into the public’s anger and fear and this legacy of destruction: “The US once waged a tragic war that plunged this land into a sea of blood and fire, and has been leaving no stone unturned to obliterate the DPRK’s ideology and system century after century.”
While the 1953 armistice that ended the fighting called for a peace treaty within 90 days, sixty-four years later there is no formal peace. There have long been U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises that perpetuate the war footing. Reports in Japanese and South Korean media claim that the exercises include preemptive strikes up to and including “decapitation” strikes against Kim Jong-un. This ongoing war footing breeds endless insecurity all around.
The Clinton and Bush Years: Successes and Self-Inflicted Failures
President Trump promoted his distorted historical gloss earlier this month at a press conference, saying “they’ve been negotiating now for 25 years, look at Clinton, he folded on the negotiations, he was weak and ineffective.” Contrary to this narrative, for eight years Clinton’s Agreed Framework successfully froze North Korea’s plutonium-based weapons program. Experts estimate that North Korea could have had 100 nuclear weapons by now without the negotiated freeze.
When the Bush Administration came into office, some officials sought confrontation. Revelations about a uranium enrichment program apparently thrilled Deputy Secretary of State John Bolton who wrote: “this was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.”
Instead of repairing the arrangement (the enrichment programs were potentially problematic but not prohibited by the agreement), the Bush administration pulled out of the deal. When the U.S. invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein, Bolton urged North Korea to “draw the appropriate lesson” from the Iraq invasion.
Kim Jong-il did indeed draw a lesson from the invasion. In 2006 he tested North Korea’s first nuclear device.
The Diplomatic Path Forward
Looking through North Korean eyes we see how the ruling cadre’s insecurity drives the current conflict. Immediate negotiations could address this insecurity with a “freeze for freeze”: trading a freeze in U.S. military exercises in the region for a freeze in the North Korean nuclear and missile programs.
Continuing negotiations could include a formal end to the Korean war. At the same time a normalization of relationships throughout the region coupled with an end to sanctions, and closer economic ties could address North Korea’s feeling of isolation. The long term goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is unlikely without an ambitious approach to regional security cooperation that dramatically changes a North Korean threat perception equation developed over the last 72 years. Regional security cooperation would need to be built in stages but ultimately might include a Northeast Asia nuclear free zone that would include Japan and South Korea.
Diplomacy can work, as it has in the past. But those who recall a false history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the unremembered past.