This is the first part of new fortnightly editorial column by Tony Robert Cochran, called the Crimson Column.
Moon Jae-In, A (Seemingly) Forgotten, But Essential Force
“Only if we take the initiative over the Korean Peninsula issues will we be the leading player who holds the key to resolving the Northeast Asian situation.”
South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-In (pictured above with his cat, 찡찡 or Jjing-jjing), a life-long peace activist, human and labor rights attorney, has been working tirelessly to bring US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jung-un to the same negotiating table. Shuttling his diplomatic core between Pyongyang, DC, Tokyo, Beijing, and apparently not sleeping for days, Moon’s efforts have paid off. He’s managed to bring two mercurial and self-obsessed figures together to sign a broad agreement initiating a peace process. Now, the Korean people support him overwhelmingly, and Moon’s party won swept local elections yesterday. Moon, not Trump, is the central person behind the Korean Peace process. The people of South Korea, the anti-war movement and the international community at large support these talks; the question is, why don’t US liberals? Sarah Lazare, writes,
“When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met with Trump in Singapore on June 12 and etched out a four-point agreement, the reaction in South Korea was largely a sigh of relief. “Koreans see the Singapore summit not just as another sensational episode in the story of Donald Trump but as a step away from a sixty-eight-year-old unfinished war,” writes E. Tammy Kim for The New Yorker.
Yet, there is a yawning gap between the optimistic mood in South Korea and the response among liberal media circles in the United States, where many are reacting with a mix of sanctimony and scorn. On June 12, Kevin Drum published a piece in Mother Jones in which he accused Trump of “abandoning” South Korea and agreeing to a weak deal. Vox echoed this line with rebukes of a “shockingly weak” agreement that includes “huge concessions to Kim for little in return.” MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson accused Trump of complicity in the public relations makeover of a dictator. And popular host Rachel Maddow released an episode on June 12 arguing that Trump’s pledge to halt war games in South Korea is a “giveaway to N. Korea” that “suits Putin’s goals”—disregarding that robust social movements in South Korea have protested the U.S. military presence for decades.” (In These Times, Liberals Are Criticizing The Korean Summit From the Right. Here’s Why They Have It All Wrong, June 13, 2008)
Lazare points to an odd, ubiquitous meta-narrative coming out of the major liberal media outlets: rapprochement with North Korea is wrong. In fact, the top two Democrat’s have roundly condemned talking to Kim Jung-un; Town Hall reports Senate-minority leader Chuck Schumer stating,
“This [Korean summit] communique lists denuclearization as a far off goal, but includes no deal to a pathway to achieve it,” he argued. “No details about how the United States might verify that North Korea has disarmed when they repeatedly lied in the past. The entire document is short on details.”
He said that through the meeting, President Trump has given “a brutal and repressive dictatorship the international legitimacy it has long craved.”
“We want to see these efforts succeed and ensure that what has just transpired was not a reality show summit,” Schumer emphasized. “What the United States has gained is vague and unverifiable at best. What North Korea has gained, however, tangible and lasting.”
“President Trump has not made much progress toward that goal yet and had given up substantial leverage already,” he concluded. “The leverage of joint military exercises, the leverage of an audience with the president of the United States.” (Town Hall, Pelosi, Schumer Criticize North Korea Summit, June 12, 2018)
The idea that the US does not talk to dictators, or give them “international legitimacy” is both laughable and ironically tragic, considering,
“For years, organizers have faced repression in South Korea, where they didn’t have the first democratic elections until 1987. The democratic uprising in Gwangju was crushed by U.S.-backed dictators and generals. We know from Tim Shorrock’s investigative journalism that the United States gave the order to send paramilitary troops from the demilitarized zone to Gwangju to quash the democratic uprising led by students and ordinary people.
People in the United States have no idea of the kind of gross role that the United States has played maintaining hegemony in the region or the Korean Peninsula. The Cold War and McCarthyism first landed and proceeded on the Korean Peninsula, and it has never ended because the war has never ended.
In organizing the DMZ crossing in 2015, one of the largest South Korean left-liberal women’s associations didn’t feel they could come out and be with us because of the repression under Park Geun-hye. Only a handful of the women’s groups had the courage.” (Christine Ahn, In These Times, Liberals Are Criticizing The Korean Summit From the Right. Here’s Why They Have It All Wrong, June 13, 2008)
Aside from the fact that the US has backed a dictatorship in South Korea itself, the US recently gave a very warm welcome, from DC to Hollywood, to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MbS). Human Rights Watch reports that,
“Saudi Arabia … has one of the highest execution rates in the world. State repression against human rights defenders and any form of dissent has only increased under the crown prince. Last September, he had many dissident religious leaders arrested, and in November he turned the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh into a gilded prison, in which dozens of prominent individuals, including princes like him, were detained without any due process. According to a New York Times investigation, 17 were treated at hospitals for torture and other mistreatment used to coerce billions of dollars in payments …
As his country’s defense minister since 2015 […] plays a central role in this war that has left more than 6,100 civilians dead and 9,683 wounded. Most of the deaths have been from air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition that caused death and destruction in markets, hospitals, mosques, and schools. Attacks have struck buildings hosting weddings and funerals.
The coalition also strangles Yemen with a blockade on a country that the UN says has the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Civilians are hungry, sick and in need.” (Human Rights Watch, Muhammad bin Salman Deserves Sanctions, Not the Red Carpet, April 9, 2018)
Since the above article was penned by Phillipe Bolopion, the death toll in Yemen has risen to over 16,000, with 2 million displaced and over 22 million needing international assistance. Now, Saudi-led forces are attacking the main port city of Hodeidah; this port provides entry for about 70% of the Yemen’s imports of medical, food and housing aid. Therefore, these howls of protest about talking to dictators are patently absurd, hypocritical and merely partisan rhetorical devices from the Democratic Party. Considering that Senator Schumer met with Muhammad bin Salman in the US earlier this year, Schumer’s excoriation of Trump giving “a brutal and repressive dictatorship [..] international legitimacy” is meaningless.
“It’s strange to see Trump going after South Korea more aggressively than he’s going after China, especially since China also thinks that dialogue is central to solving this problem.
– John Delury, Professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, September 2017
Moon Jae-In’s strong popularity, his commitment to peace and his role as a democratically elected leader negotiating between two nuclear powers has largely been sidelined in by the major US (and Western) media. Why? Racism plays a major role; many US Americans I have been speaking with lately did not recognize the name “Moon Jae-In.” Others said that South Korea is a mere “vassal state” of the US, forgetting that Moon has been relentlessly pursuing peace, even when Trump issued his infamous “fire and fury” warning to North Korea, threatening to completely annihilate the nation of 25 million people. In September 2017, Trump accused Moon of “appeasement” towards North Korea, and threatened bilateral trade agreements with the South. Moon’s office rebutted Trump’s remarks, “We will not give up and will continue to push for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula through peaceful means working together with our allies.”
As autumn turned to winter, and the heat between Trump and Kim increased, Moon remained committed to peace negotiations. And by February of 2018, Kim Jung-un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong attended the Winter Olympics in South Korea, beginning a quick bilateral North-South normalization of relations. This included opening direct communications between Seoul and Pyongyang, and led to the first in what are now several meetings between Moon and Kim. North Korea also agreed to halt all nuclear testing. None of this happened magically; Moon, who campaigned on a peace platform, had been working to bring the US and North Korea back from the brink of very possible nuclear war. A flurry of diplomatic overtures culminated into the historic moment when Moon and Kim met on April 27, 2018. The Washington Post reported,
“Initially surrounded by North Korean officials who later stayed behind, Kim approached the border that has divided North and South Korea for almost seven decades. On the South Korean side of that border — marked by a small barrier — Moon was waiting. Both shook hands, before Kim stepped into South Korea.
No North Korean leader has ever set foot in South Korea since the de-facto end of the peninsula’s war that raged on until 1953.
Within the first seconds of the historic visit, Kim went off script, asking the South Korean leader to also step into North Korea.”
“In a scene that immediately went around the world, Kim and Moon then walked off to North Korea hand in hand, where they stayed for some moments before returning to South Korea and heading off to Panmunjom, the “truce village.” (The armistice that ended the Korean War was signed there in 1953.)” Washington Post, April 27, 2018)”
Historic and extraordinary, considering the circumstances: Kim had recently tested his largest nuclear weapon yet, Trump had threatened the North on multiple occasions, saying his nuclear “button” was “bigger” than Kim’s, and the US had tightened up already incredibly onerous, oppressive sanctions on the North. A flurry of diplomatic activity happened after April 27th’s Kim-Moon summit, culminating in a South Korean messenger offering a message from Kim to Trump: let’s meet. And Trump, for whatever reason (his desire to have the Nobel, distract from scandals plaguing his administration, etc.) agreed. The point is that he agreed to meet with the head of North Korea, something that no other president has done. And that he did so because of a message relayed via the South Koreans.
Moon is the son of refugees who fled the North; he grew up in extreme poverty; he worked as a labor and human rights attorney; he protested the US-backed dictatorship that ruled the South until 1987; in his personal life, he adopted a dark-coated rescue dog named Tory, sending a message against the use of dog meat and Korean discrimination against dogs with darker coats; he’s increased spending on social services, civil society, and campaigned for transparency and against corporate corruption. By all measures, Moon is on the Left. He is an independent leader, not afraid to say “no” to the US. And therefore, it is essential that this man’s words and actions be seen as both central and positive in moving the Korean peninsula away from war and toward a peace agreement. One of his main goals was to get Trump and Kim to sit down together, and after several Trump advisors – including Vice President Pence – made ill-timed comments that nearly derailed the June 12th Kim-Trump summit, South Korean diplomats hurriedly shuttled between Pyongyang and DC, getting the mercurial Trump to recommit to the meeting. No one knows where the June 12th meeting will lead, yet I think that with Moon’s cautiously optimistic, tenacious presence at the helm, the world is better off than it was on June 11th. He is certainly a presence for peace on the Korean peninsula, and the US Left must support that peace process, not Trump. The liberal warmongers, from Rachel Maddow to Chuck Schumer, must be thoroughly rejected for what they are: incapable of understanding the violent, racist and imperialist US role in Korea’s past and present, and the desperate need for a new paradigm to ensure a peaceful future.
. . .