One month on from his historic June 12 summit with Kim Jong-Un, Donald Trump has radically changed the narrative on North Korea.
Whether the meeting — the first time leaders of the US and North Korea have met — has paved the way for peace (and delivers Trump a Nobel) is hotly disputed. But what can’t be denied is that Trump’s decision to end the annual US/South Korea “war games” (long used by the DPRK to justify its nuclear defence program), and his statement that “yesterday’s conflict does not have to be tomorrow’s war”, elevated Kim’s isolated regime from enemy to potential friend.
Trump’s shift in rhetoric — from war to peace — has posed a momentous challenge to the political pundits, intelligence analysts and military officials who have maintained a hostile stance on North Korea for decades. For North Korea visitors like me, however, the summit has been a step in the right direction.
War and peace
In 2013, I made Aim High in Creation! — a documentary about North Korean cinema — and in doing so, suggested that normalising relations with the DPRK was preferable to the bloody “regime change” inflicted on Libya and Iraq. During my time working on the film, I befriended Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, discovered the intergenerational damage caused by America’s brutal civilian bombings in the Korean War, and witnessed, first-hand, many North Koreans’ longing for reunification and an end to the war that has pitted their tiny nation against the world’s biggest nuclear superpower for 65 years.
Conservative commentators slammed me for being an “apologist” for the Kim regime. I am not. But I do believe (call me crazy) that diplomacy is preferable to war. Five years on, the Trump-Kim summit has made peaceful negotiation with North Korea, for now at least, the new normal and Western pundits are struggling to adjust.
The shock hit home the day after Trump met Kim, when he tweeted North Korean nukes were no longer threat, and the world could “sleep well tonight” — an assurance that was greeted with skepticism and alarm. Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd gave the President’s “unorthodox” approach a cautious pass. Peter Hartcher pointed to North Korea’s appalling human rights record, with a moral umbrage the media rarely applies to US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Dr Balbina Hwang (an ex-mouthpiece for the ultra-right Heritage Foundation) described Trump’s cozy-up to Kim as a “profound shift in the world order”, with North Korea the only winner. Several commentators declared South Korean President Moon would be “disturbed” by Trump’s cancellation of the war games — despite the fact that Moon and Kim had already agreed, in the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration, to “completely cease all hostile acts against each other”.
A few responses were positive. Fox, having virulently opposed negotiations with North Korea under Obama, gave the summit a thumbs-up. The ABC’s Matt Carney outlined the economic benefits to China if sanctions are lifted. Dr Jay Song called the summit “important” for all Koreans, who’ve lived “in a ceasefire for over six decades”. But the general consensus was that Trump, in advocating peace, had been played.
Tellingly, shares in Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, the weapons manufacturers who stand to profit most from a Korean war, plummeted by 1-2.6%.
Changing the narrative
Since the summit, North Korea cancelled its annual Day of Struggle Against US Imperialism march, the war games have been suspended, and the Trump-disruption factor has kept the media circus busy with other matters.
On June 30, just when the Trump/Kim buddy fest was becoming old news, anonymous US intelligence analysts alleged that North Korea has continued to produce nuclear weapons fuel, and is “trying to deceive the US”. North Korea’s counter-accusation, that the US is making “gangster-like demands” for CVID (Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearisation), while avoiding officially ending the war, has been seized on by pundits as proof that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — in insisting post-summit talks have been “productive” — is “foolishly driving down a boulevard of broken dreams”.
The line that North Korea — pariah member of Bush’s “Axis of Evil” — cannot be trusted, is familiar. Blame for presidents Clinton and Bush’s failed 1994 and 2008 negotiations with Pyongyang is consistently sheeted back to the Kims — with the US’ own broken promises and bellicosity rarely mentioned.
But in Trump’s post-summit world, the “evil North Korea” narrative is stale and counter-productive. North Korean denuclearisation is now interdependent on the US lifting sanctions, signing a peace treaty, and decreasing its military in the South. If the president’s bizarre summit propaganda video is to believed, his dream, “of a future where all Koreans can live together in harmony… and peace chases away the darkness of war”, may well end with Kim’s rockets giving way to a Trump-style resort, on the beaches of Wonsan.
That future’s far from certain, with US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s “Libya solution” still hovering in the wings. Pyongyang is asking itself, like Washington, if the other side can be trusted. For peace negotiations to succeed, Western media coverage of North Korea will need to be more rigorous and historically accurate than it was pre-summit, when the hermit kingdom was just another “kooky” dictatorship, clickbait entertainment for fake news.
The old focus — on America’s military status in the region — will need to expand to accommodate the interests of a key player too often ignored: the Korean people, and their right to live unfettered by the dangerous international brinksmanship that has kept their country in a state of war for 65 years.