The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Three old ghosts are back. They will wander around the Vietnam summit venue of U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The first ghost is the revival of realism, a key principle of U.S. foreign policy from the 20th century. U.S. foreign policy always had a label of “the moral duty of the Good Samaritan.” But the strategic target on the Resolute desk of the White House was completely different from that motto. It was a balance of power to stop an emerging superpower from controlling the Eurasian continent.
The former Soviet Union, Germany and Japan used to be the big powers seeking expansions hostile to U.S. interests. George F. Kennan, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, summarized the realism this way: Among the three powers, Japan was the only country democratic countries could defeat without cooperating with one of the three. If Germany and the Soviet Union joined hands, it would be impossible to defeat them, he said. If the United States faced one of the two powers, it could only defeat it with the support of the other, he added. That was why President Franklin Roosevelt, arguably one of the most progressive leaders, cooperated with Joseph Stalin, a slayer, to fight against Nazi Germany without reservation.
The armistice of the Korean War 66 years ago was a product of realism. The United States and the Soviet Union did not want another world war. After World War II, Germany fell and the eastern half came under the influence of the Soviet Union. Even the British government urged a truce in the war that was taking place in the Far East. After the armistice, the Korean Peninsula was nearly forgotten until the United States paid attention to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s development of inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
After the fall of the USSR, the cold realism of the United States was awakened by China, a 21st century Soviet Union, which seeks expansion into the South China Sea and its “One Belt One Road” initiative. U.S. neo-realism of engagement and rollback of China are now the Ten Commandments of the U.S. foreign policy.
The U.S.-North Korea summit is primarily based on the calculation of exchanging Kim’s nuclear program for money. There was no serious consideration of values, such as peace or a vision to unify the long-separated two Koreas. If the United States remembers Josip Broz Tito — a Yugoslav communist revolutionary and statesman who kept a distance from Stalin while having exchanges with the West — Trump will surely have a hard time resisting the temptation to seek a mediocre compromise by offering large gifts to Kim to make him stay away from China.
The second ghost — older and more vicious than ideology — is nationalism. Trump promoted an “America First” policy to push forward trade protectionism, immigration and border controls and increases in allies’ payments for defense costs to fuel a new boom of nationalism in the United States. Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin did not hesitate to make their own national interests the top priority of their diplomatic agendas. Among those nationalist strongmen, protecting Korea’s interests is no easier than keeping a candle lit during a typhoon.
The third ghost that will roam around Vietnam is populism. In this year’s State of Union address, Trump said his foreign policy keynote is “principled-realism.” But it may be better to quote Mike Tyson, whom Trump often quotes. “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth,” Tyson said.
Trump said if it were not for him, the United States would have been having an all-out war with North Korea. For him, tweeting from Vietnam a message that he has removed a threat from the North’s ICBMs and protected U.S. security would be an irresistible temptation.
Populism in internal affairs can be judged by an election. But it is a nightmare when populism is mixed with foreign affairs. No one will take responsibility for the outcomes, and it is usually impossible to reverse them.
The ghosts of realism, nationalism and populism may produce an outcome that the United States will lift sanctions in return for the removal of the North’s ICBM program. That outcome could mean the denuclearization of North Korea will progress step by step and the United States will declare and end to the truce with a promise that it won’t attack the recalcitrant state.
For Koreans, the joy of an end of the Korean War is a fiction: Nothing will change. Do we have to endure the long, tiresome progress to verify the dismantlement of nuclear weapons and materials, while continuously worrying about hidden nuclear facilities? Is Japan the true U.S. foothold to contain China, or is it Korea?
Throughout history, an end of a war for the United States mostly required unconditional surrenders of enemies — such as Germany, Japan and Iraq — or a withdrawal of its forces as in Vietnam, Syria and Afghanistan. Under the name of the end of the Korean War, do we have to always worry about the reduction or withdrawal of U.S. troops? Will there be any change in the North’s 1 million-strong forces and conventional weapons? Above all, won’t we face a stronger internal division in Korea than after the end of the Korean War? The time to protect our peace and security against three ghosts in Vietnam is approaching.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 12, Page 31