Image Shift or Sea Change? US Response to Singapore Summit

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

William Blake


Was the June 12 Singapore Summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un a breakthrough or a let-down, a success or a sham?

On June 20, a Quinnipiac poll asked whether the meeting, “aimed at getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons,” was “a success or failure for the United States.” Roughly half of respondents – 49% – said ‘success,’ exactly a third said ‘failure,’ while 15% weren’t sure. Partisan perspectives were starkly polarized, with 82% of Republicans, but only 21% of Democrats, happy with the outcome.

Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, Singapore Summit, 12 June 2018. (Source: NBC News video

Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, Singapore Summit, 12 June 2018. (Source: NBC News video)

Asked whether they “had confidence in President Trump to handle the situation,” 92% of Republicans said ‘Yes,’ 84% of Democrats ‘No.’ And asked whether “North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons,” 49% of Republicans but only 9% of Democrats said ‘Yes.’ With few exceptions, official Democratic responses coupled angry suspicion with moral indignation that Trump was, in House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s phrase, happy to get “palsy-walsy” with a dastardly dictator.

Ironically, this domestically-profound Red/Blue divide may obscure a common attitude to the North Korea crisis – and issues of nuclear proliferation and disarmament more generally – rooted in a patriotic privileging of America’s unique right and responsibility to shape world affairs. For most Democrats, Trump is (understandably) seen as an illegitimate president and disreputable commander-in-chief; for most Republicans, Obama was unworthy to lead either the ‘free world’ or the ‘greatest military’ ever seen. On the question, however, of whether the world needs to be chiefly commanded by America, the Democratic Donkey and Republican Elephant are still of one voice.

The wording of the poll’s ‘success/failure’ question, for example, is perhaps more revealing of American perspectives than the nature of the responses, as the ‘aim’ of the Singapore Summit was not unilateral North Korean nuclear disarmament but rather, in the words of the Trump-Kim statement, to “establish new…relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity” – a broad and deep process of building a “lasting and stable peace regime” necessarily involving the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

In ways rarely reported in US media or acknowledged by US officials, denuclearizing the Peninsula involves much more than denuclearizing the North. US policy and posture will also need to be thoroughly ‘de-nuked,’ for though Washington no longer bases nuclear weapons in the South – as it did, in blatant contravention of the 1953 Korean War Armistice, from 1956 to 1991 – it does actively plan and practice the first-strike use of nuclear weapons deployed on ‘assets’ (bombers and submarines) across the Asia-Pacific.

Such a hostile ‘deterrent posture’ is, in truth, maintained with not just North Korea but China and Russia in mind, and while neither of those countries want the North to become a nuclear-weapon state – and thus risk an apocalyptic, uncontainable conflagration – neither will countenance a simple surrender leaving America’s massive military presence intact, perhaps to be used, should occasion or temptation arise, to affect Iraq- or Libya-style ‘regime change.’

Logically, then, the price of “lasting and stable” peace will be the mutual provision of legally-binding security guarantees of non-aggression (of any kind), with words backed by dramatic, de-escalatory action: not just the mutual denuclearization, but the general demilitarization, of regional relations. But though such a transformation would be of huge benefit to the US homeland, sparing it the agony of vulnerability to North Korean nuclear attack, might it not be seen as an almost un-American activity, a ‘surrender’ of supremacy potentially spelling the end of ‘American exceptionalism’?


Writing in Foreign Policy on June 14, Stephen M. Walt, professor of International Relations at Harvard University, argued that precisely such a psychological sea-change is now needed: a painful relinquishing of the self-image of ‘Uncle Sam’ as exemplar of both Might and Right, an indivisibly moral and military force for good in a mad, bad world.

Shortly before the Singapore Summit, Walt notes, the New York Times ran a feature headlined “Kim Jong-un’s Image Shift: From Nuclear Madman to Skilful Leader.” The “story,” Walt argues, “tells you less about Kim than it does about America’s self-defeating tendency to portray adversaries as irrational, crazy, deluded, risk-seeking, suicidal, or just plain nuts. Instead of seeing foreign-policy disputes as the product of straightforward conflicts of interest or clashing political values, even well-experienced U.S. officials and knowledgeable pundits are prone to seeing them as a reflection of personality defects, paranoia, or distorted views of reality.” To take just the last hundred years, Soviet, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Iraqi, Libyan, Iranian, and North Korean leaders (among others) have been generally portrayed and perceived as virtually sub-human “irrational fanatics” capable of limitless evil.

Here, a detail of the well-known "I Want You" poster by James Montgomery Flagg. Source: Guernsey's auction house

Detail of the “I Want You” poster by James Montgomery Flagg. Source: Guernsey’s auction house

“In the 1970s and 1980s,” for example, “hard-liners suggested Soviet leaders placed so little value on human life that the ability to destroy all of the Soviet Union’s major cities and industrial centers and to kill tens of millions of Soviet citizens might not be enough to deter them from trying to ‘fight and win’ a nuclear war” – even though, as Pentagon whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg chillingly details in his new book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War-Planner, such an unconscionable calculus merely mirrored America’s own strategy.

In 2008, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute wrote that Iran’s leaders “believe Islamic interests make Iran’s weathering a retaliatory nuclear strike worthwhile.” “Got that?” Walt asks: “The ayatollah won’t mind dying and having the country destroyed in a nuclear attack if it helps him spread Islam.” And while “we like to portray our enemies as irrational and foolhardy,” Walt argues, “we’ve been guilty of no small amount of crazy behavior ourselves.” As in a major recent example (which I explored at length in a 2016 Spectator article, “Sacred Honor & Lizard Brains: Let’s Talk NATO”).

Reasonable people can disagree about the net costs and benefits of NATO expansion, for example, but it was pretty crazy to think the United States could keep moving NATO eastward without severely damaging relations with Moscow. Yet proponents kept insisting that Moscow wouldn’t object or that its objections were insincere or ill-founded.

It is equally ‘crazy’ to suppose the North Korean ‘problem’ can be solved without cost or consequence to the traditional, nuclearized militarism of American foreign policy in the region. Tellingly, one of the main post-Summit criticisms of Trump has been his failure to secure guarantees of unilateral denuclearization of the North, an ‘error’ supposedly confounded by his own unilateral gesture of suspending US-South Korean military exercises – what he rightly called “war games” – and his openness to drawing down US troop levels in the South (and Japan).

Speaking on Democracy Now on June 12, historian Bruce Cumings argued that, for all his cynical egoism, Trump “looks at the Korean problem with innocent eyes. He says that it’s ridiculous that there hasn’t been a peace treaty signed, you know, shortly after the War ended in 1953 or sometime in the last 60 years. And he’s right about that.” But “the most stunning thing” was for him to talk about the war exercises being provocative:

When Barack Obama was president and there was a particular crisis involving North Korean missile or bomb tests, he would send nuclear-capable bombers to drop dummy atomic bombs on Korean islands…the war games often involved attempts to knock over the North Korean regime, plans to send the Marines in at the port of Wonsan to march on Pyongyang in the early stages of a war and the use of nuclear weapons in the Korean theater. So I think it was very important that these war games were canceled. But it’s also quite revealing of somebody who doesn’t know a whole lot about the situation…looking at the situation and saying, “Wait a minute, this is not only expensive, but it’s also very provocative.”


This does not mean the Summit is a simple cause for celebration, or represents a masterpiece of mature diplomacy. The joint statement is almost scandalously skimpy, and as disarmament analyst Joe Cirincione wrote in The National Interest“there is not a single, credible nuclear-security expert who would agree” that the “vague communiqué” will by itself eliminate a single scrap of the “dozens of nuclear weapons, hundreds of missiles and the vast nuclear weapon complex North Korea has accomplished over the past five decades.” And Ambassador Robert Gallucci, President Clinton’s chief nuclear negotiator with North Korea, arguing that “the only possible reaction to the summit is disappointment,” is certainly right to register the irony that “it was these same two leaders whose words in 2017 brought us to the verge of war, perhaps nuclear war, who we now would celebrate for possibly bringing us peace.”

North Korea's Kim Jong-un shakes hands with South Korea's Moon Jae-in across the demarcation line separating their countries. 27 April 2018 (Image via Youtube channel)

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un shakes hands with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in across the demarcation line separating their countries. 27 April 2018 (Image via Youtube channel)

But while it was almost certainly the concerted ‘peace offensive’ of another leader, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, that made the difference between ‘jaw-jaw’ and ‘war-war,’ and while it may now be President Moon’s drive for deep détente between the Koreas that holds the key to sustaining momentum, Trump’s perverse ‘innocence,’ combined with Kim’s long-planned pivot from nuclearization (dangerous and isolating ‘strength’) to modernization (dependable and integrative peace), played key roles in the improbable and occasionally absurd drama.

Cirincione and Gallucci make good points, but also miss the main point grasped by Michael Krepon, another veteran observer of both failed and successful disarmament diplomacy, who wrote on the Arms Control Wonk site on June 13 that while the “Punditariat” will engage in “endless exegesis,” his advice is to “rip up your scorecard” and focus instead “on the big picture” — is another war on the Korean peninsula more or less likely? Have nuclear dangers grown or receded, at least for now? After the Singapore summit, it’s fair to surmise that the likelihood of a second Korean War has been greatly reduced, a war that could well result in the first mushroom clouds on a battlefield since 1945.

(Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it should be stated, were not ‘battlefields’ in any accepted historical or legal sense, but cities populated overwhelmingly by non-combatants.)

Excellent plans exist for both the deactivation and dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programs, and the broader denuclearization and demilitarization of the Peninsula and wider region. In late May, for example, a team of technical experts from Stanford University (headed by Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory) released a “Technically-Informed Roadmap for North Korea’s Denuclearization,” charting a 10-15 year path to full and final Zero – though with significant progress, effectively ‘defusing the Bomb,’ in the first two years.

And in Singapore on June 11, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) detailed “Five Steps to Denuclearize the Korean Peninsula,” calling on both Koreas to join the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – the TPNW, or simply the Ban Treaty – to help assure each other that the days (decades) of nuclear threats and posturing are over.

But the experts can only now begin to play their part because of the existential reprieve secured in Singapore. As Rebecca Johnson, a founding co-chair of ICAN and long-time feminist scholar and peace activist, wrote in Open Democracy on June 13:

Two vain men met in Singapore, posed for the cameras and signed a joint statement. Neither…deserve to be trusted, so why should we be cautiously hopeful that the Singapore Summit might this time lead to more sustainable peace and disarmament in the Korean Peninsula? The answer came in a text from a South Korean friend: “Now we can start to hope.”

It is dangerously easy, especially far removed from the Peninsula, to dismiss as vanity both Chairman Kim’s comment in Singapore that the “past worked as fetters on our limbs, the old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles on our way forward, but we overcame all of them and we are here today,” and Trump’s seemingly sincere reply, “that’s true.” How true, we can’t tell, but for true peace to prevail, North Korea and America have some inconvenient truths to confront. While the two long-time enemies are certainly not the same, both have ‘fetters’ to lose.



Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.







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