If the summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un doesn’t happen, it’s easy to finger the culprit. National Security Advisor John Bolton, who started in his position after the U.S. president agreed to meet with the North Korean leader, has never concealed his desire to effect regime change in Pyongyang. In February, he published an article in the Wall Street Journal urging the United States to launch a preemptive military attack against North Korea. It’s hard to find anyone in the Pentagon or the foreign policy establishment who would endorse Bolton’s extreme view.
Although John Bolton has done what he can to prevent the proposed summit – such as bringing up the Libya case to send a negative signal to Pyongyang – he is not the real obstacle to peace. After all, he’s only been in his position for a few weeks, and the Cold War between the United States and North Korea has lasted for nearly 70 years. Even before he joined the Trump administration, Bolton was not a particularly influential voice on Korean affairs. He might have attracted a lot of attention on Fox News, but he didn’t really have any impact on U.S. policy.
If not John Bolton, then who is the real obstacle to peace?
One common answer in Washington is, of course, North Korea itself. U.S. pundits often blame Pyongyang for the failure of negotiations and for constantly demonizing the United States. North Korea, they argue, will never accept détente with the United States because that would mean giving up on the dream of uniting the Korean peninsula under Pyongyang’s rule.
In fact, North Korea very much wants a deal with Washington. It believes that the United States is the gatekeeper that can let North Korea into the global community. Also, North Korea highly values American expertise and products. Moreover, North Korea fears too great a dependency on China (or South Korea or Japan). A deal with the distant hegemon is more palatable than a potentially fatal dependency on a neighboring power.
Another common answer to the question, at least among progressives, is that the U.S. military-industrial complex is the real obstacle to US-DPRK peace. But this is equally untrue. With a population of only 25 million and a conventional military force that has declined in quantity and quality over the years, North Korea is a relatively minor military threat, even with its modest nuclear weapons program. Also, South Korea has more than enough firepower to counter its northern neighbor.
In fact, the military-industrial complex doesn’t need any particular threat at the moment to keep the funding flowing. Since taking office, the Trump administration has increased the Pentagon budget by 23 percent. And if defense contractors needed to trumpet a threat other than terrorism, it would not be North Korea but China. After all, Beijing has amassed a considerably more sophisticated military and has staked claims to a large section of the South China Sea. China is the only real hegemonic competitor on the horizon.
No, the real obstacle to US-North Korean peace is much more obvious. It’s the foreign policy establishment in Washington, what former President Barack Obama not-so-fondly referred to as The Blob.
The Blob is deeply skeptical about the usefulness of negotiating with North Korea.
“All efforts in the past have failed and have simply bought North Korea time to achieve what they want to achieve,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats recently testifiedbefore the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker echoes this sentiment when he says that people in the foreign policy community view Kim Jong Un’s promises “with great caution and skepticism that’s been going on for 25 years.”
That skepticism has been overcome for brief periods – immediately around the negotiation of the Agreed Framework in 1994 and in the initial stages of the Six Party Talks in the 2000s. But even during these high points of engagement between Washington and Pyongyang, the foreign policy establishment continued to express doubts about the eventual end point. North Korea wanted normalization of relations; the foreign policy establishment was content with denuclearization.
During the Obama administration, the Blob’s skepticism toward the utility of détente with North Korea effectively froze U.S. policy into its stance of “strategic patience.” Aside from the short-lived Leap Day Agreement with Pyongyang, the Obama administration invested its political capital in engaging other parts of the world: the Russian reset, the rapprochement with Cuba, the nuclear deal with Iran. It would have cost Obama a tremendous amount of political capital to overcome the Blob’s resistance on North Korea.
Donald Trump’s hostility to the foreign policy establishment – which has scorned and mocked him – has turned out to be an unexpected boon for the two Koreas. Trump has stacked his administration with certifiable hawks, like Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But the president wants to establish a foreign policy legacy somewhere in the world where Barack Obama did not make a mark. Ironically, then, the failures of “strategic patience” and the skepticism of the foreign policy establishment turned out to be precisely what attracted Trump to North Korea.
It’s possible, of course, that John Bolton will end up undermining the US-DPRK summit. Or perhaps, if the summit goes forward, he will successfully work to destroy whatever agreement the two leaders make.
But it’s ultimately the foreign policy establishment that will determine, in the U.S. context at least, whether a true détente can happen. During the overtures to Communist China in the 1970s, it took the forceful lead of Henry Kissinger to overcome the knee-jerk anti-Communism of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. The U.S. business community, anticipating enormous profit, also helped overcome the resistance of the pundit class.
Without the support of Kissinger (too old) or the U.S. business community (North Korea represents too small a market), détente between Washington and Pyongyang may fall prey to the skepticism of the Blob.
The major difference with the China example, however, is South Korea. By shouldering the risk, demonstrating that engagement with North Korea works at a practical level, and influencing their counterparts in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, South Koreans can make sure that the fragile negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang are not subject only to the whims of a fickle president.
John Bolton will probably never change his mind. But with the help of Seoul, America’s foreign policy establishment can be moved incrementally toward support for peace and reunification on the Korean peninsula.
Hankyoreh, June 4, 2018