This may come as a shock to some people—especially the higher ups in major American media—but this whole North Korea business isn’t about America. We’re a secondary player (at best). It’s about…well…Korea. Here’s a perfect example of how misguided and self-serving some mainstream American thought is on this topic, courtesy of one of the liberal Mother Jones’ most well-known writers.
As FAIR's Adam Johnson noted in his quote-tweet dunking on this sheer and utter stupidity, South Korea is leading these peace talks. Eighty-one percent of South Koreans support the summit between Trump and Kim Jong-Un. Eighty-eight supported the summit between North Korea and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The real story behind this is that decades of efforts by South Korean liberals are potentially being realized right now. Peace is seemingly on the table. How is that “abandoning South Korea?”
It could be, but only if you view everything through the lens of “how does X affect America?”
If you've fallen prey to this line of thinking, don't despair. We all have, because we live in an empire with a distorted media landscape where 90% of it is owned by six conglomerates. There is a unified message thrown at us by the CNN's of the world: American foreign policy is global foreign policy. It's incredibly difficult for normal people (read: not writers like myself whose brains have been irrevocably broken by covering politics) to escape the groupthink that dictates our mainstream politics. If it's “bad” for America, then it must be bad for the world.
It's not. Colonialism is bad for the world, and we are the world's latest colonial power.
Resolving the near-century long conflict on the Korean peninsula is an objectively good thing, even if America has to make amorphous optical concessions, and even some real ones—like Trump tossing out the idea that America and South Korea would end their joint-military exercises (which has already been walked back by Vice President Pence). If peace is the endgame, then these exercises which exist solely to agitate North Korea cannot be a part of it. Trump is right on this topic even though his negotiation methods aren't.
I'm sympathetic to the narrative that Paste's Shane Ryan rightfully skewered today. I was a political science major and was taught in the ways of the diplomats. What seems stupid from the outside can be very meaningful to those running policy on the inside. My favorite class in college was international law, where my professor described diplomacy as “a play inside rich men's brains.” The optics of the American flag side-by-side with the North Korean flag does provide the hermit kingdom some legitimacy, but it is nearly impossible to quantify, even though it does influence the proceedings.
If future talks were to break down, then this dog and pony show we just witnessed (done solely for the western and North Korean cameras) would amorphously strengthen North Korea's position at the next bargaining table, while weakening ours amongst all the other nations in the talks. The truth of diplomacy is that a lot of seemingly stupid, performative nonsense actually matters because some people overseeing the proceedings say it does. The problem is that the substance of what happens is only known in hindsight once an agreement is met, so it's impossible to say exactly what kind of impact this very clear propaganda win for North Korea will have. Paste's Roger Sollenberger did an excellent job diving into this very thin agreement that has almost no concrete victories for American interests, save for the remote possibility of peace, which is in everyone's best interests.
But it's also a propaganda win for Trump. In fact, that's clearly his main impetus behind this. The man only thinks of wins and losses which can be conveyed on television, and becoming the first president to do anything is enough for him to sell it to his base of sycophants. The problem for those opposing this meeting is that you're downplaying the very real work done by South Korean, Japanese, Chinese and potentially North Korean diplomats to forge peace on the continent. You're signaling to countries who have far more skin in the game that opposing Trump and Kim Jong-Un's propaganda efforts supersedes the push to finally end the Korean War. They want peace (well, China wants peace on their terms), and we want to not “legitimize” a brutal dictator. See how that sounds like your priorities are a little out of whack?
We can't help it. We're Americans. We helped rebuild Europe after World War II, and have endured centuries of domestic propaganda telling us that our rugged individualism is the only beacon of light in this dark world. However, complaining that this superfluous performative act is some new red line that we've crossed is telling on yourself. A cursory review of American history proves otherwise.
America is currently housing child immigrants on military bases in what can only be called concentration camps, our drone policy is summary executions and we just confirmed a Bush-era torturer who tried to cover it up to run the CIA. Hell, the CIA admitted to overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran and installing a dictator in 1953, which is one of the central reasons we find ourselves in a mess with their leaders today. I’d say that America itself has already “justified” all that evil several times over.
Long-story short: breathe, folks. This will take a while to truly figure out, and by going nuts over some amorphous propaganda victory for Trump and Kim Jong-Un, you’re burying the lede that South Korea and North Korea are in serious peace talks—and have been for some time. Japan and China are aiding these proceedings too. At best, we’re the fifth most important actor in this saga. Despite what you hear on the news, not everything that happens in the world is always about America.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.