Democrats Need More Than Hot Air on North Korea

Moon Jae-in is trying for peace on the peninsula. Liberals should have his back.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (C) attends the 70th anniversary of Armed Forces Day at the War Memorial in Seoul on Oct. 1. (Photo by Jeon Heon-Kyun-Pool/Getty Images)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (C) attends the 70th anniversary of Armed Forces Day at the War Memorial in Seoul on Oct. 1. (Photo by Jeon Heon-Kyun-Pool/Getty Images)

The Democratic Party has no coherent North Korea policy. The party’s approach has been a mixture of tough talk and reactive criticism of Trump, not the coherent vision that’s badly needed on a critical issue. And while there’s been robust criticism of Democratic foreign policy from the left, North Korea has barely been mentioned. For example, in a major speech on foreign policy given at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies on Oct. 9, left-leaning Sen. Bernie Sanders made only one casual reference to North Korea before moving on to discussing the Middle East.

The inability to formulate a clear policy on North Korea is a severe weakness. North Korea has a strong claim to being the No. 1 U.S. foreign-policy issue. The stakes cannot be any higher with North Korea: a nuclear war that could destroy millions of lives, including thousands of American lives either in the mainland United States reachable by North Korean ballistic missiles or the lives of the U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea and Japan. The North Korea issue puts America’s most critical allies in Asia—South Korea and Japan—at risk of a nuclear attack, and it ties directly to the U.S. relationship with an increasingly assertive China.

Further, a fundamental change in the inter-Korean relationship may be afoot. Donald Trump became the first U.S. president to hold a summit with a North Korean leader when he met Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June. Until last year, it was seen as a major breakthrough when the leaders of the two Koreas met, having only done so twice in the 70 years of the Korean Peninsula’s division. But since taking office in May 2017, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has personally met with Kim three times already. With Moon’s latest visit to Pyongyang, followed by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent meeting with Kim, the two Koreas and the United States are discussing the possibility of declaring a formal end to the Korean War.

A geopolitically critical country potentially undergoing a transformative change, with a nuclear war at stake, should grab the attention of anyone who is interested in foreign policy. Yet the Democratic Party and the wider left only offer a mishmash of shortsighted partisanship, residual hawkish attitudes, and overcorrecting suggestions of retrenchment.

In his speech this week, Sanders referenced Kim Jong Un as merely one of many examples (along with Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Viktor Orban of Hungary, and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines) of Trump palling around with dictators—paying no attention to the fact that Erdogan, Orban, and Duterte are not threatening a nuclear war against the United States and its allies. A chorus of former Obama administration officials are openly skeptical about a declaration to end the Korean War, to the point that one casually suggested that the United States should “make war, not peace.” On the other hand, a number of progressive writers who are wary of U.S. militarism advocate that U.S. troops should leave South Korea and let China handle North Korea. Bruce Cumings, the leading progressive scholar of Korean history, went so far to agree with Trump’s claim that the joint war games conducted by South Korea and the United States were “provocative” and ought to be canceled.

This confused approach is bad diplomacy and bad politics. Bad diplomacy, because it diminishes the stature of U.S. liberals in the eyes of a critical ally. South Koreans are close observers of the domestic politics of their most significant ally, and they are certainly not fans of Donald Trump: In a poll conducted in the spring of 2017, only 17 percent of South Koreans said they trusted Trump on world affairs. Nonetheless, South Koreans have appreciated his engagement of North Korea, if only because it lowered the possibility of a nuclear war. When South Koreans see partisan attacks against the inter-Korean peace process, they wonder if the Democrats will object to any attempt for a dialogue with North Korea so long as Trump is in the White House. I have heard from many in South Korea, including several figures in the South Korean government, worrying about what would happen to the inter-Korean peace process if Trump should leave the White House and the Democrats take over.

The Democratic approach is also bad politics, because it is contrary to what the U.S. public wants. Considering how Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s previous support for the Iraq War acted as an anchor that helped sink her presidential bid twice, a hostile posture toward North Korea is not a winning political message. But it is also an overcorrection to claim that Americans are tired of foreign intervention altogether: The public support for U.S. troop presence in South Korea is overwhelming, as is Americans’ willingness to defend a U.S. ally in case of a North Korean attack.

What should liberals be looking for in the Democratic Party’s North Korean policy? I offer three guiding principles.

Firstly, as the party of peace, the Democratic Party should renounce the military option in the Korean Peninsula. Experts of all ideological stripes agree: There is simply no way to limit a military option in the Korean Peninsula in a way that will not escalate into a full-scale war. North Korea’s conventional weapons alone are sufficient to level much of the Seoul metropolitan area, killing not only hundreds of thousands of South Koreans but also the thousands of U.S. troops stationed there. Then there are North Korea’s nuclear weapon-tipped ballistic missiles, which can reach all the way to the East Coast of the mainland United States and potentially cause a nuclear holocaust in New York or Washington, D.C.

Yet U.S. presidents, both Republican and Democratic, have fiddled with the idea of a military strike on North Korea. The Trump administration made headlines when the news broke earlier this year that it was considering a “bloody nose” strike against North Korea, but in 1994, Bill Clinton’s White House was about to bomb North Korea’s nuclear facility despite the Pentagon forecast of up to 1 million deaths in the resulting war. Democrats should renounce the military option in the Korean Peninsula, making clear that the United States will only take military action if it is absolutely certain that a North Korean attack on the United States or its allies is imminent. This is not only the right thing to do, but also would be an important signal to Pyongyang and would help avoid the worryingly plausible scenarios such as the one described in Jeffrey Lewis’s grim fantasia The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, in which ill-tempered tweeting convinces Kim a U.S. assault is imminent.

Secondly, as the party of multilateralism, Democrats should affirm the value of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Being a faithful ally means valuing the safety of the ally’s people and giving due respect to their wishes. Although South Korea is the most significant U.S. ally when it comes to the North Korea issue, Republicans have never treated South Korea as an equal partner. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has callously suggested that “if thousands die” in a second Korean War, “they’re going to die over there.”

Yet Republicans are not the only ones making light of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Many in the left agree with Trump’s repeated suggestion that the U.S. troops should withdraw from South Korea, although South Koreans overwhelmingly support the U.S. military presence, even if North Korea should denuclearize. In D.C. foreign-policy circles, both Democrats and Republicans believe the absurd charge that Moon is a closeted anti-Americanist who would have South Korea leave the alliance with the United States—even though Moon personally said in an interview with Fox News that U.S. troops should remain in the peninsula “even after the peace treaty is signed and even after the unification is achieved.” U.S. liberals must learn to value their most important ally in the region and check any action that sows mistrust between South Korea and the United States.

Finally, as the party of diplomacy, Democrats should support efforts to open dialogue with North Korea. There is legitimate discomfort that Trump’s blustery style of negotiation may cause more harm than good. This discomfort often leads liberals to criticize Trump as a friend of dictators as Sanders did, or ridicule him as being played by Kim, as Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley did this summer while dismissing the progress in the U.S.-North Korea talks. But liberals must resist the urge. While skilled diplomacy would be preferable to Trump’s ramblings, his bumbling approach is the only kind available at this moment, and it is still better than a nuclear war.

As an antidote to Trump’s gracelessness, the Democrats can put their support behind South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, who has been a crucial mediator between United States and North Korea throughout the past year. When Trump impetuously canceled the U.S.-North Korea summit in May, Moon quickly crossed the DMZ to hold a surprise second summit meeting with Kim, which eventually pushed Trump to revive his summit with Kim in the following month in Singapore. The denuclearization negotiations between North Korea and the United States stalled after the Singapore meeting, but in the third recent inter-Korean summit last month, Moon once again drew out enough commitment from Kim for the U.S.-North Korea dialogue to continue. Time and again, Moon has been the stabilizing presence in these negotiations; U.S. liberals must recognize an ally in South Korea’s liberal president and give him all the support available.

It makes no sense for Democrats to cede the reputation of peacemaking in the Korean Peninsula to Donald Trump, who threatened “fire and fury” upon North Korea just over a year ago. The current occupant of the White House notwithstanding, this is the best opportunity in decades for building a lasting peace regime in the Korean Peninsula. This is not a banal entreaty to set aside partisanship: The Republican Party has made serious blunders on North Korea, and the left should be happy to challenge it on those as they should the right’s many other failings. Rather, it is a call that liberals should act like liberals by taking a principled stance for peace through diplomacy.

S. Nathan Park is an attorney at Kobre & Kim LLP based in Washington, D.C., and an expert in East Asian politics and economy.

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